It’s already been a stellar year for queer cinema with “Call Me By Your Name” and “God’s Own Country” making big waves at Sundance and “120 BPM” earning raves at Cannes. Less visible — but taking on no less important of a subject — is Dome Karukoski’s prestige biopic “Tom of Finland,” receiving its Canadian Premiere at the Fantasia Film Festival. While often hamstrung by genre conventions, particularly in the picture’s first half, “Tom of Finland” is a passable entry into the LGBT film canon and largely successful in selling the subcultural relevance of the eponymous artist’s beefcake drawings.
“Tom of Finland” traces the life of unassuming artist Touku Laaksonen (Pekka Strang) — better known by his alias Tom of Finland — from the end of the Second World War through the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, all the way to the end of his life in the 1990s. Musically moving between flashback and the forward-moving present tense, we see Touku’s sexual awakening amongst the Finnish soldiers cruising in the woods, the doldrums of his work at an advertising firm and the stagnant atmosphere of the home he shares with his sister Kaija (Jessica Grabowsky).
Touku’s life takes a more interesting turn when he settles on a secret muse: his seminal beefcake pinup, often uniformed as a subversion of the oppression he experiences from the police and soldiers. Unable to publish his work in Finland, Touku is spurred on by his and Kaija’s flatmate Veli (Lauri Tilkanen) — also his clandestine lover — to pseudonymously publish his art in the United States. The work takes on a life of its own, going on to inform a gay subculture blossoming halfway across the world.
Strang is well-cast as the titular artist, even if his performance often takes a backseat to the overly dramatic cruelty of history. Subtle gestures, such as flexing his arms when posing for a sketch by his sister, hint at the bright personality that is repressed by the social mores of postwar Finland. Never diminished by the passage of time, these blink-and-you’ll-miss-them details bond the audience to the artist. When Touku arrives in California, we share in his constant marvel at the flesh-and-blood embodiments of his “Tom’s Men” living full, out lives in Los Angeles before the AIDS crisis took hold. The film captures an experience shared by many members of the gay community who move from small towns to the big city and are more comfortable at expressing themselves.
“Tom of Finland” is one of many cultural works intended to celebrate Finland’s centennial (ironic, considered that the film hammers home how antithetical “Tom’s Men” were to Finnish values), and as a European co-production, fits the bill of the prestige period-picture calibrated to sell to as many territories as possible. “Tom of Finland” is certainly handsomely put-together; the way that changes in fashion serve as a marker of time rather than title cards is particularly pleasant. However, the scenes set in Helsinki, as admirable as the production design may be, simply don’t capture the cheeky, playful kink of Touku’s pinups, which are admittedly ahead of their time.
What Karukoski fails to convincingly put across is how Touko settled on much of the iconography that characterizes his work: leather, motorcycles, men in uniform. Some of the influences are threaded convincingly throughout the film, such as a Soviet soldier serving as the blueprint for Tom’s iconic Kake character. Others are merely suggested with a point of view shot, such as of a group of men suited up in black leather at a motorbike race. This cinematic shorthand comes off as surface-level psychology and doesn’t quite explain the development of these staple fetishes.
“Tom of Finland” picks up a lot of steam in its second half — even absolving much of the staidness of the film to that point — following a major jump in time and the movement of the action from Helsinki to California. The trajectory of “Tom of Finland” from this point is propelled by the same lively, sex-positive energy that marked “120 BPM” as an instant queer cinema classic, one that resonates with the film’s target demographic. The most important expression in the second half (rather than the capital ‘I’ importance of the postwar arc) is the de-stigmatization of HIV/AIDS, still a central concern for the LGBT community.
“Tom of Finland” may take on queer subject matter even if the format of the feature itself isn’t queered — a Bruce LaBruce film this is not. Although there is a temptation to critique this film or “120 BPM” for the ways in which they hew to genre conventions, it’s nonetheless important to appreciate the value of such landmark queer stories being told, regardless of the conventional shape that they may take. Even when director Karukoski isn’t as successful in his telling of Touko’s story, he never sanitizes the images or language for straight audiences. In this regard, “Tom of Finland” does justice to its subject and his desire for self-expression without censorship. [C+]