Jan Troell’s Everlasting Moments is a wonderful film. It is filled with the kind of insight and intelligence about the human condition that most films don’t even come close to possessing. But my dilemma while watching it: why does a film that is so complex and interesting feel that it must surpass two hours in order to seem significant?
This is a tough argument to make because it makes it seem as if I have no attention span. I like a two and a half hour film as much as the next guy, as long as the story is interesting enough to support it. The problem that I have with films like Everlasting Moments is that they are smart and interesting but so lethargic that the viewer can’t help but look at their watch after awhile. There is a painful dilemma that comes with these movies: could the film have been as good with a shorter run time, or is its length vital to its effect?
I had a similar experience with Wim Wenders’ 1987 film Wings of Desire. I found this movie extremely fascinating, but I didn’t feel it required its two hour and fifteen minute length in order to get its ideas across. Just because a film is cerebral and meditative doesn’t give the filmmaker license to be precious or self-indulgent when it comes to editing. The obvious counterpoint to this is that arthouse directors like Wim Wenders aren’t simply wasting time in their long, meditative pictures, but are trying to convey things that lazy viewers simply aren’t picking up on. That may be true, but in the interest of making your film as accessible as possible, aren’t you doing yourself a favor by weeding out the things that, if you are self-reflexive enough to notice them, might be considered flights of fancy?
Out of this comes the counterpoint that film is about the expression of the artist’s vision, that the audience should leave their expectations at the door in favor of getting lost in a work of art. There is also the fact that cerebral films are made for a certain audience that enjoys them; indeed, I didn’t see Everlasting Moments at a multiplex, but in an arthouse. But just because you know the type of film you are going to be getting doesn’t give a filmmaker the right to be self-indulgent or long-winded. Certain directors that operate outside of the mainstream are given insane amounts of credit for making really long movies that run out of gas long before they are over. At a certain point you are only staying in the theater simply to see how the movie ends and not because you are actually invested. Filmmaking is the expression of an artist’s vision, yes. But I think the audience needs to be kept in mind as well. Films are entertainment, after all.
I’ll come back to this argument in a bit. Let me first talk about about Everlasting Moments. I will reiterate that it is quite a wonderful film. It tells the story of a Swedish couple, Maria (Maria Heiskanen) and Sigfried (Mikael Persbrandt) Larrson. The film opens in 1907, just when the Larrsons are continuing on a long string of bad luck. Sigfried, also called Siggy, is a good, hard-working man who is bedeviled by alchoholism. Maria has long suffered through late nights of Siggy stumbling home drunk, waking their children for sing-alongs. He makes promises to put the bottle down that he just as quickly breaks.
The Larrsons are always having financial trouble thanks to Siggie’s benders and frequent unemployment. Maria makes money as a house-cleaner and a seamstress, but as she keeps having babies, her family becomes more and more difficult to support. She remembers and old camera that the family posseses, and takes it to the local photographer, Sebastian Pederson (Jesper Christensen) in the hope of pawning it.
Mr. Pederson, who we first see playing violin in his empty shop when he thinks no one is watching, is quite a lovely man. Drifting into the loneliness of old age after a failed marriage, he takes an immediate shine to Maria. He sees that there is a plate left in the camera from the last time it was used by her. He develops it for her and is taken aback by its quality. He makes her a deal: he will by the camera from her as long as she will accept plates and chemicals to use it and develop her prints. Maria, with both excitement and dread, complies.
Maria has no formal training in photography, just an artist’s eye and a sense for good composition. She begins to see things around her differently, as if the world is just waiting to be photographed in an interesting way. Mr. Pederson supports her enthusiasm, and even offers her a job in his shop after his assistant quits. But Maria is still a wife and mother, and would have a hard time balancing this new obligation with her others. Christensen and Heiskanen are such subtle actors that it is easy to miss how their affection has deepened, and that this is as much a story about burgeoning love as anything else.
But it is also a love story in another sense. Siggy is often drunk and in trouble with the law, but he is not a bad man. When he is sober, he does his best to support his family and hold things together financially. He sees photography as a flight of fancy for Maria, and he often beats her. After she flees to the home of her dying father, he preaches to her about staying with the one that God has put you with. The film is narrated by the couple’s eldest daughter, Maja (Callen Ohrvall), who says toward the end of the film “I’m not sure why Mama stayed with Papa. Maybe it was love.” She speaks this last part as if it had never crossed her mind before, and we understand that Siggy and Maria’s love story was one of obligation, and that Siggy would have fallen apart without her.
The child’s perspective in a story like this is important, and Troell handles it well. He uses Maja’s voiceover sparingly enough so that it doesn’t control the film, but passes in from time to time to lend some perspective. I was reminded of the way Angela’s Ashes unfolds, with an adult narrator trying to shed meaningful light on the events of his childhood, events he might not still understand from the remove of so many years.
Everlasting Moments also shares with Angela’s Ashes a technical mastery of its setting. Troell understands what is both beautiful and dark about this world, and manages to express it without being overly showy. The images in the film are graceful and authentic, as if they lept from the pages of historical record but were taken by a true artist.
I would have no problem with the film’s run time if it were able to keep injecting new fuel into the narrative to motivate the viewer’s interest. But the conflict stays the same throughout the story: Maria is unable to cope with Siggy’s drinking and their lack of financial stability. All the while, she is also discovering herself more and more through her camera and trying to reconcile that with the life of a housekeeper and seamstress. So we get a lot of scenes where Maria and Siggy fight and then Maria is assuaged by Mr. Pederson’s kindness. There are also threads involving Maja that really go nowhere. There are other interludes involving Siggy’s infidelity that aren’t paid off either. I understood why these threads were in the narrative, but I didn’t feel as if they really needed to be.
So the film repeats itself until we just want Maria to leave Siggy and be done with it. I liked this movie from the standpoint that it has a lot of interesting stuff in it, but the narrative isn’t as tightly constructed as it should be. If Troell had trimmed a chunk out of the movie, just some of the excess fighting or simply compressed the time frame of the story a bit (I think it ultimately takes place over 14 years or so) then we would have had a much better film.
I like thought-provoking films as much as the next guy, probably more than the next guy. I just wish that independent film wasn’t the place where a filmmaker can get away with being longwinded. Studio filmmaking is often bashed as being all about efficiency and marketability. Independent filmmaking could just as easily be called the land where a director doesn’t have to make any choices and can produce as bloated or long-winded a narrative as he wants. Movies like Synechdoche, New York have a lot of good stuff in them, but they leave the audience far behind in the interest of following whatever rabbit hole they think is the most interesting at that moment. Cool and unconventional, yes, but do they work as entertainments? For a small, niche pocket of the population, yes, but perhaps independent filmmakers should still be mindful that standards of brevity and accessibility are not without merit. Troell has the same problem here. He is so obsessed with his vision that he can’t keep the whole narrative in perspective. He doesn’t consider that his film might work better if he cut things out that he might be in love with but also might be repetitious.