One small life
If Everlasting Moments makes one thing clear, it’s that director Jan Troell was the right man for the job of making his wife’s grandmother’s life story into a movie. Troell, now 77 and the de facto inheritor of Swedish cinema’s mantle from the late Ingmar Bergman, understands how movies work just as well as he understands the basic mechanics—those necessary historic abbreviations, and concise revelations of character, and unforgettable faces—of family lore.
Set in southern Sweden at the turn of the 20th century, Everlasting Moments is the story of a woman whose life was changed by a camera she won in a lottery. This was a time and a place—not so unlike our own, after all—when the emerging technology of photography actually could be a social equalizer, and possibly even a tool of creative self-discovery. If, in addition to all of that, feminist liberation seems like asking too much, maybe that’s why Maria Larsson, played here with elegant precision by Maria Heiskanen, takes it so slowly.
She’s a hardworking mother of seven children, and the wife of an abusive, philandering drunk. Maria’s dockworker husband, Sigge (Mikael Persbrandt), is a simple brute, captive to his appetites, relatively immune to political awareness and probably better off among horses than people. But as a provider, he’s reliable, and their lousy, poignantly durable marriage feels like a sort of foreign-film archetype, along the lines of Gelsomina and Zampanò in Federico Fellini’s La Strada. Troell, for his part, specializes in radiantly realistic characters, through which he nimbly demonstrates how one small life can seem to signify a whole swath of social history.
For a long while, as the narration by her oldest daughter, Maja (Callin Öhrvall), explains, Maria simply abides. The camera goes neglected in her closet for years, coming out at all only because she thinks to sell it for some needed extra cash when Sigge goes on strike. But the gentle and gracious proprietor of the local photo shop, one Mr. Pedersen (Jesper Christensen), encourages her to use it instead, and teaches her how.
As it happens, Maria is a gifted noticer, and it’s not long before the neighbors want to hire her for family portraits. What’s more, there’s a charge in the air, a sense that the dimensions of ordinary working-class life might somehow soon be enlarged. With war looming and social unrest coming to a boil, now seems like a good time for Maria to pay extra attention to her world. She’s exhilarated, but also worried that her attention will be diverted from the responsibilities of motherhood—and that Mr. Pedersen’s attention will make her volatile husband uneasy. In both cases, her worry is well founded.
Elaborating on these developments, the movie does not make any haste. It is resolutely conventional, and possibly a rebuke to our era of digital immediacy and hyperkinetic storytelling, in which the process of making pictures has become so much more familiar and so much less attentive. But this is not the work of a curmudgeon or a hopeless nostalgist. Troell’s first priority is simple observation.
He came up through cinematography, and shot much of this film himself. His technical fluency is obvious and commanding but not showy. (If you want special effects, just keep watching Heiskanen’s amazing face.) Troell’s experience has taught him to understand how visual records both corroborate fallible memories and enable apocrypha, just as shifts of social and technological perspective both mitigate and encourage sentimentalism. The creamy brownish hues of Everlasting Moments both indulge and interrogate our emotional associations with sepia tones.
If the experience of this movie feels a little like the ritual of gathering around a family photo album, maybe that’s partly to wonder what will happen in, say, another century’s time, if the family photo album as we know it no longer exists. Troell knows that what we want from our photographic memories and the stories they prompt is a special kind of emotional precision: a permanent one.