The camera has often been synonymous with power and control. The person behind the camera is active, the subject passive. To suddenly become a photographer suggests a dramatic change of direction for a character, an assertion of one's self and destiny. How strange, then, that control seems so elusive for Maria Larsson (Maria Heiskanen), a housewife in 1907 Sweden who discovers photography late in life.
Everlasting Moments is an intimate family drama with a feminist subtext, about Maria's struggle for order, understanding and happiness, and her husband Sigfrid's (Mikael Persbrandt) contrapuntal tendency to inject chaos and unhappiness into the mix.
Their marriage began happily, according to the voice-over narration of their daughter Maja, an eyewitness to her mother's increasingly difficult life in the Swedish town of Malmö. A seaman with an enormous clipper tattooed on his back, Siggie is the kind of husband and father most appreciated when he's out to sea, or in jail, or far from their peaceful home. Maria struggles, despite him, to maintain a well-ordered, peaceful house, filled with lovely but breakable-looking children who seem to emotionally shatter the second their father steps over the threshold.
The four Larsson children (who eventually grow to seven) cower in the presence of this volatile man whose drunkenness and womanizing have made him the family's black sheep. Maria's one small rebellion and attempt to carve out something for herself is the Contessa camera she finds hidden beneath a pile of linens. She initially considers pawning the camera, but the delicate, gentlemanly man behind the counter at the photographic studio Mr. Pedersen (Jesper Christensen) convinces her to keep it. He encourages her with gifts of photographic plates and developing chemicals. Over time, the camera represents agency and desire in Maria's life. But it is also bound-up with her growing infatuation with Mr. Pedersen, a man so different from her husband he could be from another planet.
Despite that camera, Everlasting Moments is not the story of empowerment and growth it might initially suggest. Maria does not use the money she earns from her photographs to become independent. She remains with Siggie despite the beatings and philandering. Director Jan Troell is clearly motivated not by black and white, good and evil, but by the shades of gray that more often make up real lives, like the complicated mixture of love and pity that accompanies Maria's anger at her husband, and the children's love for their father despite frequently witnessing his black moods.
But shades of gray can also sap Everlasting Moments of dramatic force. As the family grows and moves from apartment to apartment, Maria remains a faithful wife, enraptured by the artistic, sensitive Mr. Pedersen but unable to leave her husband. Maybe she just loves the brute. Despite his ugly rages, Troell takes great pains to establish Siggie's humanity. He is exceptionally kind to animals and friends, and even saves a sickly horse from sure death. The mind may be willing, but the body is weak. For every tearful promise to stay dry, there are ship's mates and captains waving bottles in front of him.
While the story of the unhappy Larssons can feel like a familiar, even clichéd, one of poverty and the special toll it takes on women, it is rooted in fact. The real Maria Larsson was a relative of Troell's wife, and the story is based on interviews with her daughter, Maja. But the temptation in recounting true stories is to cram in more facts about the characters' lives than the story can bear: world war, class warfare, sexual exploitation, teenage love affairs, the Swedish temperance movement, suicide. The film becomes so bogged down in incident that knowing Maria as a person, along with her motivations and desires, proves difficult.
Where the film is most satisfying is in an artfulness that operates beyond words. Acting as cinematographer (alongside Mischa Gavrjusjov), Troell shoots the Larsson's world in shades of ivory and beige to endow even a brutal life with a celestial glow. At age 78, the Oscar-nominated Troell (The Emigrants, The New Land) is a master of the film form. The most vibrant, compelling elements within his bleak, leached-of-color setting are human faces. Maria and her pale, ethereal children glow like small, hopeful moons despite all of the hardship they encounter. Like Maria — for whom photography is more a tool of contemplation than catharsis — Troell is clearly in love with his characters, good and bad. Maria, too, takes them as they are, finding the beauty where it exists, but refusing to turn away from ugliness.