We have reached a point in our society where photographs are, essentially, disposable at a whim. At any given time, it's possible to store thousands upon thousands of photographs on a data card, with the option to try and try again if a shot doesn't look right and, in most cases, simply delete the ones with accidents or off-the-mark faces. It's not the way it used to be with standard film cameras, where snapping an elegant shot, after being developed in either a personal dark room or at a development location, was -- excuse me, is -- like capturing lightning in a bottle. Everlasting Moments (Maria Larssons eviga ögonblick), a Swedish film from Oscar-nominated director Jan Troell (The Emigrants), beautifully illustrates the emotionality behind ensnaring one of these flashes in time, while it also pairs the importance of memories against the immediate needs of a family in both monetary and structural disorder.
Troell's film follows this biographical account of the Larsson family, especially of Maria Larsson, as told by the eldest daughter, Maja, over a ten-some-odd year span. Taking place in the early 1900s, the story begins with the revelation that Maria and her husband, Sigfrid, married shortly after a dispute over who would keep a camera that they won in a raffle. Springboarding from there, Maja's narration gives us a description of the pair, making sure to paint an equally sympathetic and brash image of the father as a hard-working, loving, yet alcoholic and abusive man who could woo women with his affable charm. It's the effects of his alcoholism that create the central conflicts within Everlasting Moments, leading to Maria getting hurt in an altercation and attempting to leave her husband. After consult from her father, a man on his death bed reciting staunch Protestant reasoning, she remains with Sigfrid out of obligation.
Though containing striking cinematography that catches Sigfrid at-work at the docks and Maria conducting everyday affairs, the prospect of watching this domestic battle within the Larsson's for over two hours seems like an exhausting affair. Instead, Everlasting Moments introduces the foundation to the story's restrained dexterity at this point, once we've gathered our senses about the characters. Strapped for food and rent money as her husband wavers between a dock worker's strike and his alcoholism, Maria ponders the idea of pawning the camera that brought them together in the first place, both a showcase of the family's desperation and a symbolic image of Maria's desire to "cash in" and start anew. What she finds, when she arrives at the photography studio with her unused Contessa prize, is a gentle, honest man with spectacles (Jesper Christensen) that wishes for Maria to use the camera before she sells it. He freely offers her the supplies -- plates, red lamp, etc -- for her excursion into fleeting artistry.
Is it revealed that she's some kind of photographic wunderkind that's been hidden under domestic sediment? To an unassuming degree, yes, but mostly it's a revelation that Maria has an eye for beauty in the everyday -- and a fiery passion for something aside from her family. Much of Everlasting Moments deftly focuses on her struggle to keep that passion alive amid her domestic hardships, grasping onto her newly-discovered talent as a source of independence and strength. Yet Jan Troell's film doesn't become heavy-handed with its sentiments of intrinsic power maturity, opting to evenly balance the true-to-life story of Maria in a way that preserves the woman's gray areas. She mentally struggles with unwanted pregnancy, the growth of her daughter Maja into a working woman, and whether Sigfrid has been wandering around with other women, yet the skill in director Troell's eyes strays far from any form of operatic extravagance by keeping a down-to-earth, dramatically adept center.
Troell also tells Maria's story with a wide array of breathtaking visual imagery, shot with nimble, earthy skill by Troell herself and her right-hand photographer, Mischa Gavrjusjov. So many of the images speak to both the time period and to cinematography's tremendous artistry: the dark recesses of a coal-shoveling vault where Sigfrid's working unswervingly, Maria and her children walking through the snow in front of an impatient streetcar, and the pedestrian walks through Sweden's early-1900s architecture. They're captivating on a pure level; this helps, since the images mostly exist within Everlasting Moments as resonant depictions of the period without much elaboration. As impressive as these shots can be, it's the stillness ensnared within the Larsson's family homes, changing with the times, which encapsulate the film's core visual motif, showing their close-quartered living conditions as Sigfrid stumbles home drunk to interact with the family.
At the center of Everlasting Moments lies the disquieting performance from Maria Heiskanen as Maria, who, while restrained to keep face about her state, speaks volumes through incensed, desperate eyes. She conjures an impeccable demeanor that elicits shades of gray about Maria's belief structure, her loyalty to her abusive bread-winning husband, and the weight of the family's pressure once the children overflow the family, tallying up to seven before the story's close. Yet, it's in the moments when she unsnaps her trusty Contessa that Heiskanen's performance stuns, causing her face to glow with such an understated light that it's almost melancholy. An equally dim light can also be seen radiating in the coy relationship between Maria and the photo studio shopkeeper, a work of striking controlled beauty in itself. While the supporting cast ensnares corresponding potency, especially Mikael Persbrandt as the brutish Sigfrid and a stunning Callin Öhrvall as the teenage iteration of Maja, this is Heiskanen's show -- and she skillfully, and subtly, commands our attention.
Which she certainly has to do, because Everlasting Moments, through its beauty of cinematography and nuance of human interaction, stays with the audience for well over two hours -- and it's not a spry affair, either. We're carried over a decade through the Larsson family life, including dockside strikes, World War I's lingering presence, and varied stints of both Maria and Sigfrid's employment, all while Maria fights to hold onto her photography through nonchalant freelance affairs. It's a portrait of development for the entire family unit, one that sees plenty of growing pains amid several situation shifts, and the way in which Jan Troell guides us through their story relies heavily on a deliberate pace that's exhaustive amid its manner-enhancing tempo. But it's beautiful, watching the pieces maladroitly fit into place within Maria's life, as it comes to an earnest close much in the way her life truly gained steam once she discovered her love for photography: by the capturing of a moment on a plate, an immortal flash.
As with The Criterion Collection's previous releases, and a continuation of their association with IFC Films, Jan Troell's Everlasting Moments arrives on Blu-ray in the company's signature clear-case packaging. The inner artwork,though it might not be completely fitting with the picture's aesthetic, offers an attractive design with glittering elements underneath the included Booklet featuring a silhouette of Maria's face. Inside the liner notes, an essay has been included from NYPress film critic Armond White, entitled "Ways of Seeing", as well as technical information about the audiovisual merits.
Video and Audio:
Taken directly from the original negative and rendered via their regular Spirit Datacine process, the folks at Criterion have once again done a glorious job with a 16mm-shot film that'd likely be overlooked for a high-definition processing elsewhere. Director Jan Troell, also the co-cinematographer, supervised the visual treatment for the film, which contains muted, tan-leaning color timing and intentional points of heavy grain to give the picture an "antique" look. The results, contained within this slightly opened-up 1.78:1 1080p AVC encode, are a spectacular combination of balanced skin tones, complex palette usage, enhancement-free naturalness and more than a few moments of eye-popping beauty. Much like Revanche, it's a surprisingly impressive presentation of a modern, low-budget independent film, one that relies on the natural aura of the picture's photography to speak volumes.
The implementation of sepia coloring isn't quite as aggressive here as you might've seen in other purposefully-aged images, allowing for a splendid gradient of controlled pinks and reds to peak from the image. A slightly grayish-blue depth of coal in Sigfrid's shoveling scene presents a great exercise of both hue and contrast control, while the nightly colors swirling about the snow-covered trolley sequence propose a similar excellence in the same categories. Grain is ever-present, as expected from a 16mm source, while several sequences have a level of harsh darkness about them that can overshadow detail -- such as a sequence involving Sigfrid and a woman whom isn't Maria. On top of that, there are a lot of complex textures that etch through the image quite impressively, such as granules of coal, the roughness of both Maria's and the camera shopkeeper's clothing during their close-ups, and the overall detail present in the close-quartered shots of the Contessa camera itself.
As to be expected, Criterion's DTS HD Master Audio track for Everlasting Moments, taken from the original Swedish elements and formatted at 24-bit, relies on a balance between dialogue and score, along with the clarity of slight sound effects -- the light click of an old-fashion camera button, shoveling and sorting of rocky substances, the clacking of horse hooves, the ratcheting sounds from a sewing machine, and an occasional thud or blast in a handful of areas. These gentle sound elements always remain pleasant to the ear and earthy in aural fabric, pairing against the varied musical cues to a satisfying level. Surround effects rarely travel to the rear channels, only with the chatter of seamen around a dock or in a busy bar, but their ambient nature keeps us involved in the film. Optional English subtitles adorn the film's sole language track.
Troell Behind the Camera (28:06, HD):
This feature, created in 2007, interchanges material focusing on the real-life Maria Larsson with a series of Jan Troell interview snippets. Maria Larsson's photographs mix with Larsson family interviews, which reveals that many of the quotes in the film come from an interview with Maya Larsson. Jan Troell discusses his draw to the early 1900s as a period he enjoys capturing on-screen, told through very non-pretentious interview bits of him discussing magic in front of the camera. The piece goes through the motions of other assembly pieces, covering the script, shooting locations, etc., yet they're handled in a more lively fashion that doesn't have that "we know we're on camera" feel to them.
The True Story of Maria Larsson (9:15, HD):
Featuring voiceover from her distant relative Agneta Ulfsater-Troell (Jan Troell's wife), many of Maria Larsson's photographs are adorned with subtitled text chronicling bits of her life. Those the narration can be a shade distracting, especially since the English subtitles are forced, the photographs are marvelous to see.
Troell's Magic Mirror (1:00:46, HD):
This lengthy piece, directed by Thomas Danielsson, focuses on Jan Troell's place in the filmmaking world. Interesting, it begins with him revealing that he has no formal film training, leading into a highly efficacious rundown of all his works before showing him get on-stage at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago. The documentary, through intimate interviews with Troell, grows very reflective and intrinsic with its content, discussing things like the flapping of insect rings as artistic endeavors. Video footage and photographs from his childhood mix with the interviews, flowing along at a slow pace. The content's interesting to absorb, even though it's a bit sluggish and indulgent with the way it's built.
Rounding things out, a very good high-definition Theatrical Trailer (2:06, HD) showcases what the film looks like at a 1.85:1 framing. Note that though all of the special features listed above are in high-definition and can be accessed with the signature Criterion Collection menu scheme, they are all of standard-definition quality due to the source's limitations -- aside from the trailer.
Jan Troell's Everlasting Moments elegantly tells the lengthy story of the Larsson family in 1900s Sweden, where a housewife discovers her calling as a photographer at what could be argued as both the best and worst time imaginable. She's forced to try and maintain her craft amid financial strife and an abusive bread-winning husband, building into an involving decade-long true story that shows how Maria Larsson -- as well as her family -- evolves around her newly-discovered "gift" for capturing life in her trusty Contessa. Jan Troell doubles as cinematographer, capturing a beautiful setting behind Maria Heiskanen's highly engrossing performance, which transforms this period piece into a sustained but exceptional film. The Criterion Collection continues to maintain its stature in the Blu-ray arena by offering an exquisite audiovisual rendering of the film, while containing a cluster of low-in-numbers, rich-in-content features that earns a very High Recommendation.