Men Are Dreadful Whatever They Do
Not everyone is endowed with the gift of seeing.
—Sebastian Pedersen (Jesper Christensen)
“A week after mother met father,” reports Maja, “She won a camera in a lottery.” Both occurrences shape her life going forward. As the child recounts over decades, her mother—Finnish-born and living in a small Swedish port town at the turn of the century—proposes that Sigfrid (Mikael Persbrandt), who has bought her lottery ticket, might share in the prize of he marries her. He agrees, and their lives are thus intertwined—by fate or accident. While Maja (played by Callin …hrvall as a teenager) provides her mother’s story with a conventionally retrospective order, Everlasting Moments (Maria Larssons eviga šgonblick) is essentially episodic, a life reimagined as a sequence of images—discrete and dramatic, sometimes inexplicable.
Inspired by the life of director Jan Troell’s wife’s grandmother (as well as his own memories of discovering photography and film), Maria’s (Maria Heiskanen) saga takes on some familiar themes. She is stoic and nurturing, a gentle soul and remarkable survivor. She is also a consummate artist, innovative regarding her photography and her family, finding ways to express herself before the concept was much in vogue. Her resilience is something of a mystery to her dour husband, who expects her silent subservience above all. For his part, Sigge is a typical lout—drunk and belligerent, prone to infidelity and fearsome bouts of violence. Frustrated by his own inability to provide for the family—eventually comprised of seven children, as his violent acting out occasionally includes off-screen rape—Sigge resents Maria’s independence and resolve. As he seeks manual labor—on the dock, in a mill, as a soldier—he cannot fathom her innovation.
Like Troell’s other films (including The Emigrants  and its sequel, The New Land ), Everlasting Moments, Sweden’s entry for the 2008 Foreign Language Oscar, is simultaneously epic and poetic, mostly predictable but punctuated by breathtaking images. Most of these are rendered through Maria’s perspective, as she learns to “see” through the lens of her Contessa camera, under the patient and admiring tutelage of a studio photographer, Sebastian Pedersen (Jesper Christensen). Intrigued by the newfangled technology and especially by the possibility of “capturing” moments, she learns her art slowly and determinedly, soon enough discovering that she might also supplement the family’s meager income by taking her neighbors’ Christmas portraits and documenting local events.
Maria’ options are severely limited, of course. “Men are dreadful whatever they do,” says her own mother, “but you can’t move in here.” And so she bears up under bruises and bloody lips, Sigge’s philandering and intermittent incarceration, sewing and taking photos, finding ways to see outside her severely limited diurnal existence. If it offers little in the way of Maria’s verbal self-reflections (she rarely speaks with friends, doesn’t confide in her daughter), it offers specific instances of her changing perspective. Literally rendered as views through her lens (upside down, sepia-toned), these images are lovely and sometimes evocative—a dead girl arranged on a table, a parade outside her own window, a shadow-puppeteer on the street set alongside a zeppelin’s shadow passing over a building. Maria’s art is particular but so generally appealing that Everlasting Moments remains profoundly unchallenging, even if Maria’s creative labor challenges everything expected of her.
Maja’s interjections are rarely revelatory (“The war went on and on,” “The police arrested father. This time he was behind bars much longer”), but Maria’s dedication creates its own narrative impulse. Whenever she begins to doubt herself, Pedersen articulates her gift for her: “You see another world through the camera, Maria,” he insists, his face earnest and his body slightly less stiff than usual. “A world to explore, to preserve, to describe. Those who’ve seen it, they cannot close their eyes. You can’t turn back.” This romantic notion that art is transformative—for artist as well as consumer—is surely attractive, and as a way to rethink history, its preservation and interpretation by individuals, it is also moving.
The movie achieves another sort of poetry by locating such struggle and discovery in Maria (beautifully and subtly performed by Heiskanen). Her single self-portrait, which Maja discovers years after her death, helps to shape this poetry: gazing at herself in the mirror with the classic boxy camera held at her waist, Maria appears at once curious, knowing, and at peace. If Maja can only tell what happened to her mother, this image lingers, suggesting that Maria saw more than even her photographs could tell. In such imagery, more than in its actual storytelling, the film is allusive beyond itself.