"Art is a kind of innate drive that seizes a human being and makes him its instrument," Carl Jung once said. "To perform this difficult office it is sometimes necessary for him to sacrifice happiness and everything that makes life worth living for the ordinary human being." It is this devotion to art -- and the undying belief that art can allow an artist to transcend everyday circumstances -- that drives Jan Troell's Everlasting Moments. Set in Sweden in the early part of the 20th century, the film follows Maria, a young mother who is married to an alcoholic, philandering, and abusive man named Sigfrid. She struggles to keep her family afloat as poverty nips at their door and Sigfrid returns home drunk, and often angry, night after night.
One evening, after a particularly harrowing fight with her husband, Maria finds a camera she won in a raffle early on in her romance with Sigfrid. Her moment of discovery is bittersweet, though, as the camera had inspired Sigfrid to propose to her in better days, joking that since they didn't know whose home the it should go to, they would simply have to create a home together. Though the camera gives her an outlet for expression, it also magnifies the miserable decline of her life with the man whom she once loved.
As Maria's life grows increasingly unhappy, over the course of countless pregnancies, ill children, and eventually the outbreak of war, she spends more and more time taking pictures, developing photos, and falling in love with the man who runs the camera store. Though Maria is a virulently independent woman who appears incorrigible in her unwillingness to forfeit to unhappiness, Troell layers on tragedy so thickly that Maria is nearly reduced to an emblem, rather than a real character. Her strength is admirable, but only believable if we can believe the notion that art can outlast any seemingly unendurable happiness. Her dedication to photography is all that remains of her by the end of the film, and the warmth and wholeness that defines her being at the beginning is reduced to little more than a distant memory.
Troell's landscape for the film is visually stunning, and he uses the underlying narrative of developing a photographic eye to offer long and beautiful shots of the Swedish countryside. Almost as a peace offering, he compensates for the depressing substance of the film with drawn-out frames of natural beauty. To the detriment of Everlasting Moments, though, he can't resist the urge to indulge in clichéd shots of butterflies and hummingbirds, which permeate the film and enhance the triteness of the storyline.
Though Troell obviously feels tenderness for his characters, in the end they serve him primarily as a means to telling the story that he wishes to tell, rather than providing important tension within the film. Like Maria, Sigfrid is not quite believable, as he is too remorseful to be hated, yet not remorseful enough to sympathize with. Underlying the narrative of art as savior is a commentary on love, albeit a commentary that would be stronger were the two main characters more realistic. Though Sigfrid provides every reason for Maria to leave him, they remain together. The best reason Maria can proffer for their endurance is that maybe, despite all evidence to the contrary, she does love him, a suggestion that is as heartbreaking as it is sweet, suggesting that love and happiness are, at best, only loosely connected to one another.
Unfortunately, the sheer length of the film greatly detracts from its power as a work of art. The plot meanders through various twists and turns for several hours before coming to an all-too-certain end, which rings false in contrast to the ambiguity of the narrative that proceeded it. Troell cannot seem to decide on the most important aspect of his film, and so he lets love, art, violence, tragedy and despair mingle in a disjointed and undirected conversation with one another. Plot lines pile up, culminating, for the viewer, in confusion and irritation rather than poignancy. By the end of the film, instead of being overwhelmed by a powerful statement about any of the possible themes, there is a nagging sense that watching Everlasting Moments is little more than an exercise in endurance.