The submissions for this year’s Oscar for Best International Feature Film are a smorgasbord of genres, topics, and styles, but there is a notable dearth of LGBTQ+ content. Although Agnieszka Holland’s Czech drama Charlatan, Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymond’s Swiss selection My Little Sister, and Filippo Meneghetti’s French romance Two of Us are all considered likely inclusions in the shortlist, one queer film has been severely overlooked by critics and awards prognosticators alike. Tove by Zaida Bergroth seems like a run-of-the-mill biopic from the outset, but it’s actually a surprisingly radical approach to autobiographical storytelling and queer love.
Bergroth’s film begins with a seemingly contradictory combination of dancing and war, cut together jarringly to stress their dissimilarity. But as we will soon see, these contrasting tones of joy and agony will reappear together over and over again in the story of Tove Jansson’s life. Jansson—a visual artist known best for her creation of the Moomins, a group of anthropomorphic characters in family-friendly comics, books, TV series, and animated feature films— was not only a talented illustrator and thinker, but an openly bisexual woman.
While Jansson eventually settled down with the graphic artist Tuulikki Pietilä, Tove is much more focused on her first queer love and heartbreak at the hands of Vivica Bandler. Bandler, an acclaimed stage director, was both of a different socio-economic status than the struggling Jansson as well as married to a man at the time of their affair. Even without knowing their real histories together, it’s clear that this relationship will be both doomed to fail and fraught with tension. Still, we root for them.
This is largely due to the palpable chemistry between Alma Pöysti & Krista Kosonen, who deliver staggering performances as Jansson & Bandler, respectively. Pöysti beautifully captures Jansson’s eagerness to be understood and earnest approach to love, while Kosonen perfectly distills the jaded nature of an experienced queer in an unwelcoming world. But however different and incompatible they may seem, they’re magnetically drawn to one another. They establish their own askew language (“kive me a giss”) and begin to refer to each other as Tofslan (Tove) and Vifslan (Vivica), names that will become used in Tove’s work to represent an inseparable pair of characters.
Beyond the technical proficiency of Bergroth’s film or the touching performances in it, Tove’s exceptionalism emerges as its perspectives on queerness and fluid sexuality become more clear. It’s a 1940s and 50s period piece, but its gender politics feel altogether modern. Homophobia, insecurity, and shame are not entirely gone, but they’re pushed far into the distance. This is a tale of personal discovery, introspection, and both the joy and the tumult that comes with that. This casual portrayal of bisexuality still feels incredibly radical in contemporary contexts, but, in this setting, it goes even further to emphasize the timeless histories of gayness; we have always been here, and we will always be here.
Queerness punctuates the film in both pronounced and subtle ways: Tove rebuilds an entire war-torn apartment by herself; she is unselfconscious about seeming “ladylike” in public spaces; Vivica is in a position of authority, speaks bluntly, and wields power without fear of judgment; Edith Piaf plays in the background of a morning after. There’s a cumulative profundity here in seeing queer women be themselves and take up space without worry. Debates surrounding authentic artistry and selling out that we so often see in relation to male artists are reoriented around Jansson and how she navigates the integrity of her work along with her need for financial stability.
Despite making movies since the 1990s, Zaida Bergroth is quickly reinventing herself as a bold filmmaker who tells queer stories in a surprising and authentic way. After making a splash at TIFF in 2019 with her lesbian cult drama Maria’s Paradise, I’m quite surprised that Tove has gone this neglected thus far. If Oscar voters include it as one of the fifteen films in their recently expanded shortlist, I wouldn’t be shocked if it surpasses expectations and clinches a nomination.
It’s the kind of smartly structured, thought-provoking, and altogether soft film that stands out through its attention to detail. Prospective viewers will certainly underestimate what Bergroth strives for here, and some will even overlook what it accomplishes after watching. But patient, observant audiences will identify and appreciate the delicate power of this one-of-a-kind project. It encapsulates the erratic nature of life in 100 minutes without falling into patronizing, oversimplified, or pedantic pitfalls. Relatable to queer and straight viewers alike, Tove is a whiskey-fueled heartbreak full of both love and regret, an erratic dance that devolves into tears. Despite this, it’s unmistakably hopeful, reminding us of the potential and promise that the future holds. And it’s all the better for it.