Woman with a Movie Camera

Darrell Hartman on Jan Troell’s Everlasting Moments

Jan Troell, Everlasting Moments, 2008, color film in 35 mm, 131 minutes. Production stills. Left: Maria Larsson (Maria Heiskanen). Right: Sigfrid Larsson (Mikael Persbrandt).

EVERLASTING MOMENTS opens with director Jan Troell’s camera contemplating a distant ancestor: an antique Zeiss Ikon Contessa. Over a wan melody, close-ups of its clicking dials and switches, shadowed lenses, and winking shutter dissolve into one another—an homage to a device with uncanny power and, in this case, a rich backstory.

Thanks to a lucky lottery draw, it’s the property of Maria (Maria Heiskanen), a working-class housewife and mother in turn-of-the-century Sweden. Early on in Everlasting Moments, which begins in 1907 and unfolds over two decades or so, she takes her prize to a camera shop, intending to pawn it, but the proprietor (Jesper Christensen) teaches her to use it instead.

Troell’s meticulous, faintly honeyed film is not, however, the tale of a woman and her art. It’s a family drama, one that’s based on the true story of the director’s relatives and sensitive to the shifting social mores of early-twentieth-century Europe. Maria answers to her husband, Sigge (Mikael Persbrandt), a deep-voiced laborer who’s built like a bull. His charm is offset by violent rages and philandering habits, and Maria can only plead with him or fume for so long before he shoves her aside.

The camera, when she gets around to using it, shows her a world outside her domestic woes. “It’s as if the pictures take over—I forget I’m a mother,” she murmurs in wonder. It’s also a means of examining history, a major preoccupation of Troell’s even before The Emigrants (1971) and The New Land (1972), epics about the Swedish immigrant experience in America that have earned him a spot in Scandinavian cinema alongside Bo Widerberg, with whom he got his start as a cameraman, and even Ingmar Bergman.

This period piece feels both familiar and intimate: Early automobiles share the cobbled streets with horse-drawn carts; Troell’s script names the train that runs between Malmö and Limhamn. (The latter happens to be his native town.) Despite the city setting, there’s a rural sensibility at work—a faith in the essential goodness of homespun living. By resisting the punchy rhythms of more mainstream films, the narrative takes a stand against artifice. No Luddite qualms keep Troell or his characters from embracing the camera, though. Maria’s mentor admiringly compares her photos to a well-made spirit: “aromas in a cup, a country preserved.”

Everlasting Moments opens on Friday, March 6, at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and Sunshine Cinema in New York.