Tuesday, August 24, 2010

As White As in Snow: Jan Troell’s Little Seen Masterpiece

Swedish director Jan Troell received some acclaim and critical notice last year with his fine 2008 film Everlasting Moments, based on the true story of Maria Larsson, a Swedish working class woman in the early 1900s, who wins a camera in a lottery and goes on to become a photographer. But usually his movies, such as Hamsun (1996), his devastating portrayal of Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun, who was branded a traitor because of his naïve support of Adolf Hitler, are little seen outside of his home country. That was particularly the case with his 2001 film, As White as in Snow, a biography of the much less famous Elsa Andersson, Sweden's first aviatrix., But as with Hamsun, the results are equally compelling. Little is known about Andersson, who died tragically in a parachute jump in 1922 at age 24, except that she blazed a small trail for women. Troell begins his film as Elsa (Amanda Ooms) takes the train to her last performance, and then flashes backwards to the key events of her life. It's a conventional approach to biography but the movie is anything but ordinary.

Troell layers on the details of Elsa's chaotic inner life, spurred by her ambivalent relationship with her father, Svend (Bjorn Granath), whom she can't forgive for beginning a love affair with the head housekeeper, Stine (Stine Ekblad), after Elsa's mother died during childbirth. Because of that scarring experience, which happened when she was a little girl, Elsa's perceptions of sex and death are intertwined, leading to uncertainty about love when she grows older.

Everything in As White as in Snow, which Troell co – wrote with Jaques Werup, Karl-Erik Olsson-Snogerod and Jimmy Karlsson, is utterly convincing, from the psychological undercurrents driving Elsa's actions and reactions--she feels most alive while flying--to the complex depiction of her as a genuinely pure but confused soul. Amanda Ooms is superb as Elsa; no matter what her emotion, she always holds the screen. In Troell's hands, the tragedy of her shortened life ends up being more than just an early death. It becomes a stirring metaphor for the vicissitudes of celebrity and the women who had to work harder to succeed in a man's world. With this finely etched, ravishing movie, Troell has done great justice to Andersson's accomplishments.

Unfortunately, the movie is not on DVD in North America but perhaps the relative success of Everlasting Moments will change that. Jan Troell is one filmmaker who deserves much more exposure than he’s gotten in the past.

-- Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto.

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