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by Mark Jenkins,
unless otherwise noted.

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MARCH 30, 2009

Image Makers

Everlasting Moments quietly assembles a complete life in snapshots; the much louder The Edge of Love offers only glimpses and poses.

By Mark Jenkins

AN ELEGANT, UNDERSTATED STUDY of how art can — ever so slightly — sweeten a harsh life, Everlasting Moments is another of Swedish director Jan Troell's tales of exile. Its central character, Maria Larsson (played steely sweetness by Maria Heiskanen) is a Finn who moved to Sweden, and she comes to have a strong affinity with another outsider, Mr. Pedersen (Jesper Christensen), an easygoing Dane who runs a photography studio. But Maria's principal challenge isn't that she's from another country. It's that she's a woman.

Set in the early 20th century — a time of bloody conflicts among workers, bosses, revolutionaries, and scabs — Everlasting Moments can't even imagine Sweden's contemporary welfare state. Maria's husband, Siggi (Mikael Persbrandt), is a stevedore who has to line up every morning on Malmo's docks to see if he'll be chosen for another day's work. He usually is, because he's strong. But he periodically forgets he's a member of the local temperance society, and goes on a alcohol-fueled binge. These sprees don't just cut into his working time, and therefore his pay; they also lead to adultery and physical abuse of his wife and growing brood.

Lightly narrated by Maja, the couple's oldest child, Everlasting Moments is a genteel film. Contrasting Siggi's eruptions and Sweden's ongoing labor struggles, the movie's mood is hushed and its look hazy. The carefully evoked old-timey pictorial style isn't simply an affectation of the director, who often shoots his own movies. (Here, he shares the cinematography credit with Mischa Gavrjusjov.) The film's appearance is keyed to its most important object: a Contessa camera Maria won in a lottery. During one of her family's frequent economic downturns, Maria takes the device to Pedersen, hoping he'll buy it. Instead, he suggests that Maria learn how to use it. She does, revealing a gift for composition.

Thanks in part to Pedersen's generosity with plates, paper, and chemicals, Maria actually makes some money for her photos. She photographs everyday scenes, but also the corpse of a drowned girl, a public appearance by Scandinavia's three kings, and a family headed to the United States (just like the one in Troell's two-part 1970 breakthrough, The Emigrants and The New Land.) The cash Maria earns for some of these shots is not enough to transform her family's situation, of course; this isn't that sort of movie. Maria may dream of escaping Siggi and endless pregnancies for life with Pedersen, whose wife has left him. But marriage, Maria is told by her father, is "until death do you part." And Maria, both extraordinary and typical, has the dignity and dedication to endure.

While this is a deliberately paced, novelistic film, it doesn't depict the moment when death parts Siggi and Maria, although Maja's voiceover does reveal her mother's fate during a final montage. Among the diverse complications of Niklas Radstrom's script, all of them deftly introduced, are World War I, the arrival of cinema, a leftist's disillusionment, various medical conditions, and Siggi's rescue of an abused horse. The animal turns out to be economic boon for the family, but by then the story is almost over. All that remains is a single undeveloped plate, a relic of a life but also a memento of a time before the photographic image became intrusive, ubiquitous, and banal. If Everlasting Moments is nostalgic, its melancholy is for a way of looking, not a way of life.

EVERLASTING MOMENTS — 2008, 131 min; at Landmark Bethesda Row.

DYLAN THOMAS IS THE MOST FAMOUS PERSON depicted in The Edge of Love, and perhaps the film wouldn't have gotten made without his name — as cinematic dealmakers put it — "attached." But the opening sequence has nothing to do with the Welsh poet, and not much to do with reality. It shows a young woman singing, her lips bright red and her face so abstracted that it might be an expressionist painting. Although not one by Francis Bacon, the subject of director John Maybury's equally dark yet more satisfying 1998 biopic, Love is the Devil.

The vocalist is Vera Phillips, played by 24-year-old grande dame Keira Knightley, the movie's biggest star and the daughter of scriptwriter Sharman Macdonald. This is her story, to the extent that it's anybody's. Maybury seems to have conceived The Edge of Love as series of set pieces — canvases, perhaps — illustrating various oppositions: love versus hate, battlefield chaos versus homefront domesticity, the constancy of friendship versus the volatility of desire. As such, the movie is intermittently striking. Cumulatively, though, it's as vague as it is unedifying.

There is a narrative, of course. During the Battle of Britain, Vera is performing in Underground stations and other bomb-shelter venues, maintaining an icy manner to deflect randy soldiers and sailors. She melts when she encounters Dylan (Matthew Rhys), her childhood friend and first lover, who's unenthusiastically writing scripts for government propaganda films. He doesn't mention that he's married, but Caitlin MacNamara Thomas (Sienna Miller) promptly introduces herself. After Dylan and Caitlin are evicted from her sister's house for the poet's drunken indiscretion, they move into Vera's one-room apartment. Things get even cozier when Vera agrees to sleep with one of her admirers, Capt. William Killick (Cillian Murphy), to escape the vision of the dead woman she just cradled in her arms. Soon, Vera and William are married.

William is sent to war in Greece, leaving Vera pregnant. She and the Thomases head to Wales, where the couple's young son has been living. (He was safer there, not only from bombs but also from Caitlin's indifferent mothering.) Romance, or its consequence, is a battlefield: Maybury crosscuts between Vera in childbirth and William's role in a bloody front-line amputation. Post-partum, Vera observes Dylan and Caitlin's sundry infidelities, and finally joins the party. (Not with Caitlin, although the two women have the movie's most intense relationship.)

His war over, William arrives at the threesome's adjoining bungalows on the Welsh coast, suffering what today would be called post-traumatic stress syndrome. He has complaints about what's happened in his absence, some of them delusional but others legitimate. He takes out his frustrations with a sten gun, a moment that's central to the film's structure, if not its emotional impact. Just as Vera's first-act singing was intensified by the threat of German bombs, so William's machine-gun fire underlines the third-act passion the actors are supposed to be expressing. Love is (boom!) the devil (rat tat tat!).

Some of Thomas's verses are murmured occasionally, but this movie isn't much of an introduction to his work. Or, for that matter, his life. More a collection of asides than a biography, The Edge of Love includes strange indulgences — several of the fake-'40s tunes Vera sings were actually written by Maybury and soundtrack composer Angelo Badalamenti — and cryptic references. When Caitlin is teasing her husband she calls him "Dullan," which is actually the standard Welsh pronunciation; "Dillin" is the Anglified version he came to accept. Such things go unexplained, as the director concentrates on facial closeups, chiaroscuro lighting, cluttered foregrounds, kaleidoscopic distortions, and views through glasses darkly. If Dylan Thomas is the hook for The Edge of Love, the artist being celebrated here is John Maybury.

THE EDGE OF LOVE — 2008, 110 min; at Landmark E Street.