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The new biographical film Tom of Finland has a lot of the trappings of the art of Touko Laaksonen, better known by his nom de pencil. There are beautiful, muscle-bound men in taut uniforms and gleaming leather, secretive encounters in moonlit parks, outrageous scenes of eroticism around swimming pools and in leather clubs. But director Dome Karukoski smartly juxtaposes the drawings’ fantasy worlds of libidinous liberation with the extremely repressive world Laaksonen inhabited for much of his life. Beginning with his time fighting in the Finnish army alongside the Nazis and moving through his late-life celebrity, just as the breadth of the AIDS crisis was coming into focus, this elegant biopic frames Laaksonen’s art as a kind of coping mechanism and key to a supportive subculture in the face of pervasive discrimination.
Karukoski’s sensitive direction, which only occasionally gives way to cloying melodrama, offers a perfect platform for actor Pekka Strang to showcase his impressive range in the lead role. The film follows a chronological format speckled with sudden flashbacks and flashforwards that can be jarring at first — including repeated cuts to Laaksonen’s killing of a Soviet parachutist, which becomes a shorthand for the trauma of persecution. As the Finnish army loses ground, he finds a friend in another closeted officer, a commander (Taisto Oksanen) whose uniform prominently features a swastika. Years later, when Laaksonen’s homoerotic drawings land him in jail in Berlin, the former commander (now a diplomat) comes to his rescue. “It’s not just a piece of paper,” he warns the artist. “It’s an atomic bomb, a drawing like that.”
The multilingual film moves between Finland and Germany and eventually to the US, which is presented as a liberated playground compared to the prejudiced Old World (a somewhat inaccurate portrayal). Laaksonen lives a quiet life in Helsinki with his partner Veli (Lauri Tilkanen) and doting sister Kaija (Jessica Grabowsky). He works at the ad agency McCann Erickson by day, attends small parties thrown surreptitiously by the local gay elite at night, and sends his refined drawings of seductive studs off for publication abroad as often as possible. Karukoski portrays this side of Laaksonen’s existence as one of under-the-radar subsistence. By contrast, Southern California — to which two fans, who promote the more widespread exhibition and publication of his art, invite him — is rendered as a kind of living Tom of Finland drawing, where bulging hot pants and ass-less leather chaps are standard features of every man’s wardrobe. Stylistically, Tom of Finland turns on this contrast between the buttoned-down Scandinavian tastefulness of Helsinki and the over-the-top aesthetics of Hollywood.
The constant in all this is Strang, who plays Laaksonen with a stoic demeanor that cracks — whether from pain or joy — during the film’s dramatic climaxes. The crushing angst of his experiences during the war and of oppression in Helsinki gives way to the powerful release of art making. In moments of inspiration, like during a motorcycle race where he photographs leather-clad mechanics tuning their bikes, Strang’s eyes scintillate. The film highlights how Laaksonen didn’t simply portray an existing subculture, but helped define and expand it by turning conventional figures of heterosexual masculine authority into empowering icons of queer sexuality. Though it may gloss over some history in favor of portraying a stark contrast between American permissiveness and European prejudice, Tom of Finland does an excellent job of illuminating one of the most influential artists of the 20th century — one whose story, until now, hasn’t been widely told.
Tom of Finland is showing at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 26 at 10:15pm and on April 29 at 9pm.