WATCHING Everlasting Moments, Sweden’s official 2008 selection for the Academy Awards, is like walking into one of those old sepia photographs and learning the stories that set the lips into grim lines and sketched weary furrows onto the faces.
Even the warm, golden tints of the cinematography give that feeling the film its aged quality as it slips into the lives of a poor family living amidst the commotion of early twentieth-century Sweden. A young couple named Sigfrid (Mikael Persbrandt) and Maria (Maria Heiskanen) win a camera at a fair; he insists it’s his, she says he’ll have to marry her to keep it. Their union immediately produces a brood of children, and Maria forgets the camera until Sigfrid slips deeper into alcoholism, goes on strike in a fit of socialism, and begins philandering. The family slips into the same dissolute slide foreshadowed in a song the children sing at a temperance meeting early in the film.
Maria tries to sell the camera to a kind photographer, Mr. Pederson (Jesper Christensen), to get money for rent. Instead, he teaches her how to use it. She begins documenting her life in snapshots, developing the pictures in the kitchen at night by draping a blanket over a chair. The estranged Sigfrid watches her from outside, through a crack in the door. The camera that started their romance now digs at their rift as Sigfrid becomes jealous of her friendship with Mr. Pederson and her obsession with the world that she sees through her lens.
Everlasting Moments is about the dignity that art brings to even the worst human conditions—the ability to see beyond the squalor of this world into another. Its most uncomfortable moments play out like a sprawling series of shameful vignettes. In one of opening scenes, a coveted visit from Maja’s (the oldest daughter) teacher ends abruptly when Sigfrid stumbles in, wasted and singing at the top of his lungs. Later, he walks off with another woman at a picnic—in broad daylight, in front of the children—and doesn’t show up until the next morning, when he takes the family careering through the streets in a drunken carriage ride. Maria—pregnant after Sigfrid essentially raped her—has to take the reins as her husband’s head sinks to his knees.
Maria’s husband is a constant source of shame, disgrace, and fear, but her photography—that ability to see the beauty in a disabled child or an icicle hanging off of a barn—awakens something in her and makes her life bearable. She feels guilty sometimes but can’t stop, even when she tries. Pederson tells her she has the ability to see a different world when she looks through a camera lens, and “those who see that world can’t close their eyes.”
When Sigfrid tries to kick out the people whose photographs she’s taking, she finally stands up to him with a kind of dignity so deep it transcends anger. Her art has awakened that part of her humanity that gives worth apart from being loved or abused, and strength to make an unhindered choice about whether to keep or leave him.
Despite its tenuous beauty, Everlasting Moments has its flaws. It’s a sprawling family history that covers over a decade, and some of the details are haphazard. The film is based on a true story—the story of a real Maja’s mother—but the film’s perspective is inchoate. Maja is initially presented as the narrator, but she drifts in and out, and her character stays hazy. We’re far more interested in what’s happening inside her mother’s head, so it’s hard to see what Maja’s filter adds. Sigfrid’s character also seems inconsistent; He’s capable of both sincere penitence and the deepest brutality, and the things that trigger either one don’t quite make sense.
The ending leaves you feeling wistful and unsettled because of what it keeps untold, but some of the final lines are the most evocative. Maja remembers that when her mother took a picture she would say, “Just imagine it—we’ll always be here. These moments will be everlasting.” For a woman who endures so many degrading moments, the ability to see and capture another world lights her way.
"Everlasting Moments" opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles.
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