Criterion // 2008 // 131 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Victor Valdivia (Retired) // July 8th, 2010
A miraculous tribute to the power of image-making.
With Everlasting Moments, director Jan Troell (The Emigrants) has made one of the most personal films of his career, one based on a true story taken from his extended family's history. The film is visually well-crafted, and the story it tells is intriguing. Unfortunately, Troell hasn't really found a coherent narrative, resulting in a meandering storyline that doesn't do justice to the story it wants to tell.
In the early 1900s in Sweden, Maria Larsson (Maria Heiskanen) is a married mother of four whose husband, Sigfrid (Mikael Persbrandt) is a drunken, loutish laborer who neither respects nor understands her. One day, she rediscovers a camera, a rare new piece of technology that she had won in a lottery, and finds it increasingly fascinating. As she learns how to take pictures and develop them with the help of sensitive photographer Mr. Pedersen (Jesper Christensen, Quantum of Solace), she discovers that she has a gift for imagery and uncovering beauty in everyday places and people. Her growing love for self-expression gradually drives a wedge between her and her husband and she becomes increasingly forced to decide just how much her blossoming talent means to her.
The story that's at the heart of Everlasting Moments -- about a woman's gradual self-discovery through artistic expression -- is an important and intriguing one. As long as the film focuses on it, it's never less than compelling. The problem is that it only does so intermittently and consequently undermines much of its power. It's Maria's story that we are most interested in, but the film takes some unnecessary tangents that only distract from it.
In the beginning, the film does do a good job of explaining the characters. We meet Maria and hear her story through her daughter Maja (Callin Öhrvall), who describes Maria's difficult life as a working-class woman expected to stand by her family at all times. We see the sacrifices she must make: always attend to the needs of her children, put her husband's happiness ahead of hers, never speak up or complain. In one particularly chilling scene, Sigfrid drunkenly beats her until one of her eyes swells shut, and she goes to her father for help, only to be told, coldly and firmly, that it is her obligation to stay married to him until death do them part. Even when she initially finds the camera, she only imagines selling it to Mr. Pedersen for rent money. It's not until he explains how to use it and why she might enjoy it that she considers it more than just a commodity. Her artistic awakening is especially affecting. Here Truell's subtle and delicate direction conveys just how simultaneously painful and exhilarating it is for Maria to realize that she has some worth completely independent of her family. It's in these scenes that Everlasting Moments finds its heart.
It's in the character of Sigfrid that the film falters. It makes sense that the film takes the time to paint a portrait of him as more than just a drunken lout; he's also a hard worker, he's good with horses, and he supports his friends. This is an interesting idea, but the film goes way too far with it. For too many scenes, we're completely left out of Maria's perspective and focused exclusively on Sigfrid's. There's a scene where Sigfrid cheats on Maria with a barmaid that goes on some beats longer than necessary. There's a scene where World War I breaks out and Sigfrid is drafted that just seems like unnecessary padding, especially since we really don't need to see him eating and joking with his fellow soldiers. There's a subplot with a friend of Sigfrid's whose life spirals downward into tragedy that's affecting but ultimately irrelevant. These scenes are all well-performed and directed, but they completely miss the point of the film. They have nothing to do with Maria's artistic and personal awakening and are so elaborately developed that they wind up shortchanging Maria's infinitely more interesting story.
This shortchanging is the film's major flaw. There are far too many scenes in which Maria's evolution seems rushed or tossed off. There's one lovely scene in which one of her neighbors, whose daughter has Down's syndrome, laments that she can't imagine a future for her daughter. Maria considers this, and then gently asks if she can take the girl's picture. It highlights just how significant Maria's gift is: not only does it make her feel better about herself, but by using it, she can make others feel better about themselves as well. This is the sort of scene we should be seeing more of, but not only do we not get enough of these, we don't even get to see the payoff to this one by actually getting to see the picture Maria took. Why not show us more of Maria photographing, developing, and discovering herself, rather than waste time on unnecessary scenes like Maja's first kiss? If Troell lacks confidence that the story he chose to tell is dense enough to carry a feature film, then why did he choose to tell it?
For this DVD, Criterion has put together a decent package. The anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer is good. The film looks grainy and destaurated, perhaps due to budgetary reasons or an artistic choice by Troell. In either case, though, the transfer captures the film accurately. The 5.1 surround mix is also pretty good, although he surrounds aren't used that much. The selection of extras is OK. In addition to the film's trailer (2:08), there are several featurettes. "Troell Behind the Camera" (28:06) delves into the production of the film with interviews with Troell, his wife (a distant relative of the real Maria Larsson) and various cast and crew members. "The True Story of Maria Larsson" (9:17) shows real photos taken by Larsson accompanied by insights into her life. "Troell's Magic Mirror" (60:46) examines Troell's life and career. Criterion, however, deserves to be docked considerably for also including a booklet with an essay by, of all people, contrarian blowhard Armond White. Seriously? What, was Harry Knowles unavailable? For all that Criterion brags incessantly about its quality control, this essay is so typically insufferable that it will make you not want to see the movie at all. C'mon, Criterion, you should know better than to stoop to such cheap tactics.
Where the film does an especially great job is in the relationship between Maria and Mr. Pedersen. This is not a bodice-ripping movie, so you shouldn't expect any major fireworks. That wouldn't be appropriate for either the characters or time period, and the nature of their relationship is far more subtle and profound than that. It's the way that both the actors and script portray the quiet but unmistakable pleasure that Mr. Pedersen takes in finding someone who appreciates visual beauty as much as he does, and the equally quiet but unmistakable pleasure that Maria takes in having someone she admires take her under his wing. This story may be too bittersweet for some viewers but the depiction of how this relationship begins and progresses rings true, both in the dialogue and characterization. If the film had focused more on this aspect as well as Maria's creative development, it would have been more consistent.
There is a lot to admire in Everlasting Moments, and the film is at least worth seeing, especially for anyone who has ever nurtured dreams of emotional and creative fulfillment. It's just too bad that Troell doesn't focus as much on his central story and instead wastes too much time on tangents that are ultimately unsatisfying. You'll savor its best moments, and lament how it could have been much better.
Guilty of not telling the story it set out to do.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Swedish)
Running Time: 131 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated