This year's Tribeca Film Festival sees the international premiere of the hotly anticipated Tom of Finland, a Finnish drama about the iconic homoerotic artist who brought muscular, often leather-clad men and their sexual games to vivid life in black and white renderings that are well known to gay men. An early trailer hinted at a film that would bring the private longings that drove Tuoko Laaksonen, AKA Tom, to bring his work to white hot life.
Pekka Strang (right) is Tom of Finland
Competently acted and well produced, Tom of Finland attempts to encapsulate both the sexual joy and anti-gay sentiment encountered by Laaksonen (Pekka Strang). The script does a nice job of condensing a sprawling life into a narrative of less than two hours, and the darker aspects of the story certainly resonate today. Tuoko survived a brutal war—his memory of killing a handsome Russian soldier in a grassy field continues to haunt him—and evades homophobic police not unlike the ones who raided the Stonewall. He also has a fascinating and ultimately tragic friendship with a fellow gay army man who enjoys clandestine "poker games" at his apartment that ultimately land him in a sanitarium. Decades later (it's not clear from the film how many, and I really wish contextualizing dates had been included) Tuoko confronts the devastation of the AIDS crisis and begins to believe those who accuse his hedonistic artwork of somehow fueling the virus.
That was nonsense, of course, and in a single well-meaning but clunky hospital scene (the movie is in Finnish and English, and the English dialogue comes off stilted and on the nose at times) Tuoko's dying friend tells him as much. But the joyful truth of that—that sex, particularly gay sex, is inherently wonderful and not an instrument for divine punishment—isn't shown to us vividly enough. There's not enough wonder and fun in the movie, despite some colorful, stylized costumes and plenty of good looking men. The filmmaker's emphasis on the sadder aspects of the story only succeed in making the film drab and plodding when it should be vibrant and full of life. The movie needs more sex—there isn't actually a proper sex scene, just suggestive moments and images—and it needs more of the freewheeling hijinks Tuoko encounters during his first visit to California, like a boy-filled pool party that's interrupted, hilariously, by uniformed cops on an unrelated case.
The pain and hatred are necessary and important aspects of the story, especially in our current time. But an increase of the passion and joy would have reminded the audience why Tom of Finland's work and life were so important in the face of such opposition.
Tom of Finland screens Wednesday, April 26 and Saturday, April 29 at the Tribeca Film Festival. Visit the festival's official site for more details.