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Review: “Everlasting Moments” (Troell, Sweden)

With her acquisition of a Contessa camera and her nearly simultaneous marriage, from the outset the life of Maria Larsson (Maria Heiskanen) in Jan Troell's Everlasting Momentsbegs a question as paramount as it is familiar: how can art and the commonplace, film and work, reconcile in one life?

Maria stows away the camera, only bringing it out again when the Larssons are strapped for cash. Venturing into a sepia-soaked photography shop she asks, "Can anything be done with it?" but her efforts to sell the camera are quickly stunted by the exceptional Mr. Pedersen (Jasper Christensen) who takes her picture and convinces her to come back the next day to "see if it registers." Maria returns and stares at the photo with the wonderment of a baby studying the mirror for the first time. If the metaphor lies a bit bare here, so does its power, for Pedersen shows Maria herself, not just a photo of herself, and then makes it logistically and emotionally possible for her to more fully become herself, a photographer. Maria walks out of the camera shop with cash in her pocket, the Contessa under her arm, and an urgent need to see what she can make of it. With this, Everlasting Moments begins its awesome obsession with exploring the multifarious ways film does indeed "register" as Maria's relationship with the camera unfolds along side her relationships with Mr. Pedersen, her children, and her increasingly self-centered and terrifying husband, Sigge (Mikael Persbrandt).

Maria's interactions with film remind us of the most basic echelons of the filmic miracle—the miracles of reflection, projection, of light and seeing—and invite us into the excitement they hold. After photographing her cat, Maria marches from behind her lens to where it sits, gives it a hug, and exclaims, "there you are!" as if shocked the cat can exist as both image and thing. She turns the camera on her kids and produces a picture that causes her raving husband to take pause; the sight of his children staring at him through an image, their expressions forever trapped, drains him. She captures her son winning a race, takes the whole town's family photos, records historical moments for the newspaper, and manages to keep a spot for Sigge's beloved horse by photographing the stableman's store. She takes pictures of a dead little girl, at once creating her most remarkable work—children peering through fogged windows at their dead friend and the photographer's subject—and an invaluable gift to the girl's mother, who meets the image of her dead 11 year old with the words, "I've never seen her so beautiful." In Pedersen's heartfelt words, Maria sees "a world to be explored, to preserve and describe," one she cannot turn a blind eye to. Her perpetual astonishment at film's power to do so many different things and her open embrace, as with the cat, of the filmic miracle at hand, challenges the comparatively jaded 2009 viewer to renegotiate, with great care, the contemporary deluge of images. So that when Maria so joyfully uses a camera to record death; create memory; commit acts of love, faith, and rebellion; mummify and resurrect moments; archive histories; give gifts of sight, pride, and self-worth—film reclaims the meanings we too often forget to endow.

These miracles of meaning-making, Maria's photography, always compete with "real" life's daily grind, however. Her life is governed by the cycles of children—not just baring them, but feeding, scrubbing, brushing, teaching, and exciting them—a job made all the tougher by a cruel, if complicated, husband. With four children hanging off her, she marches through a night's snow drifts, seeking refuge from a home wrought with the violence of an insecure drunk. A camera resting on her pregnant belly, a child shattering a work-in-progress, a makeshift darkroom, that ever-haunting history of impassioned-women's guilt—these confrontations between a life of art and a life of practicality articulate Maria's days. Given this grim reality of family and duty, perhaps it's the grandest miracle of all that she (with the constant, quiet push of confidence from Pedersen) finds a way to live by the mantra, "You see what you want to see" and to realize that vision through art. She brings these battling worlds together, that of brute existence and the miraculous, by making film a part of loving, giving, or fulfilling a duty to a friend. She works to render the practical artistic. If this isn't the ideal artistic experience—it takes her decades to get a real 'room of her own'—her commitment to living with a foot in both worlds is an appropriate aspiration and the greatest potential savior for a whole lot of us. From here, heroes begin to emerge: Pedersen, Maria, and Troell insist that, even if our hands are busy, we cannot shut our eyes to the miraculous or turn away once we've seen the beauty of the day.
Is this the same Martha from What Is This Light/The Playlist? Great review, I loved this film too.
Erin, Indeed this is the Martha Polk from What Is This Light but it must be a different one (or an impostor!) over at The Playlist. And thanks for reading!
Wonderful, insightful review. The scene where Maria photographs the dead girl was so moving I almost gasped when I saw the final photo. My one (teeny) disappointment is that we never got to see her photographing the child with Down Syndrome. I really wanted to see what she saw through the camera.

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