FILM REVIEW: Oscar Submission TOM OF FINLAND
Biopics of famous or misunderstood artists typically seek to distinguish themselves by riding on the coattails of whatever quirks made their subject matters interesting and different. But in Finland’s submission for the Best Foreign Language film award at the Oscars, Tom of Finland, the subject matter speaks for itself. Chronicling the life of a drawer who lived decidedly in the outskirts of conventional society—not just straight society, but, for today if not at the time, arguably outside of gay society as well—the film tells the untold story of an at times remarkably difficult but eventually inspiring life. Tom of Finland does suffer from biographical ennui, going through the motions of checking through the episodes like one checks boxes on a list, but it is nevertheless a well-rendered depiction of a man whose influence in a civil rights movement was broader than he could have possibly dreamt.
Tom of Finland begins with Touko Laaksonen as a young man engaged in heroic combat against the Soviet Union during the bitter days of World War II in his native Finland. After developing a close bond with another closeted officer, he returns home to Helsinki where he must come to terms with his sexuality surrounded by homophobic sentiments, violence, and more. His sister strongly disapproves, and Touko must resort to random and heartless encounters in dark parks and alley, all fraught with the ever-present danger of the anti-gay authorities. Amongst the other clandestine men he eventually meets and falls for a younger man with whom he develops a long-term bond.
But the emotional crux of the biographical film is Touko’s ability to resort to his considerable drawing talents to ease the pain of his existence, escape the pitiless reality of the world around him, and transport himself to a sexual fantasy world in which all is forgotten. Touko is inspired mostly by his war experiences, as well as his repeated encounters with the police (including during a particularly brutal sojourn to Berlin to promoted his drawings). He draws hyper muscular men donning the leather uniforms, boots, straps that characterized uniforms from Nazis to Soviets to Finnish alike. And, drawing from his furtive encounters within the Helsinki park scene, he draws them in increasingly graphic, sexual, and even pornographic positions.
Fully explaining the depth and reach of Tom of Finland (as Touko became known) and his art’s influence on gay art is beyond my abilities. Suffice it to say that, as a civil rights matter, his images were one of the early examples of what is now a common tactic in equality movements, the recapturing of the tools of oppression. By depicting the people who brutalized him and his community in attractive and appealing ways, Touko not only disarmed them, he empowered himself above them.
The film Tom of Finland, itself, is not quite as powerful as the groundbreaking and still resonating product it features. Directed by one of Finland’s greatest living directors, Dome Karukoski, the movie is most compelling in its early stages, when it serves as an intimate portrait of Tuoko’s struggles and travails, the bitter relationship with his sister, the difficulties of living a full life, and his relationship with his young lover. But, when Tuoko eventually travels to California not just in search of a promoter, but in search of escape, the entire film devolves into problematic narrative form.
As Tuoko ages and becomes famous, he develops friendships with younger men in the gay leather scene in California, and begins to grasp the inspirational nature of his composition. But the emotional and personal anchors of the film, which had lifted it to this point, are shed in lieu of circuit party scenes and a feeling that the film just wants to roll through the remaining decades, eager to wait until the end. The AIDS crisis hits just as gay men were coming out of the closet, Tuoko and his lover both fall ill to non-AIDS related sickness, and the rest of his life goes by as a whirlwind.
There is nothing wrong with depicting those movement moments, of course, but ultimately Tom of Finland fails to effectively convey either the urgency that led Tuoko to create the work he did after he experienced a different form of repression in the United States, not does it give full credence to Tuoko’s accomplishments beyond a half-baked title card.
Tom of Finland is successful in most other senses, in any event. It is most genuine in its early moments, is lifted by a soaring and rich score and fine performances, and overwhelms you with the sense that this is an important story that has not fully seen the light of day. Its Oscar chances may not be as pristine or as inspired as some of Tuoko’s finest drawings, but then again even those pictures and their in-your-face style are not pleasing to every audience member. That does not make them any less influential or important, and Tom of Finland could one day be considered a smaller but important companion to that work.