Despite being an artist biopic, Hilma refrains from delving into art. That is perhaps its biggest strength and greatest weakness.
Lasse Hallström’s ambitious biopic tells the bittersweet story of Hilma af Klint, a Swedish turn-of-the-century abstract artist whose works never enjoyed popular recognition during her lifetime. A mystic and an artist, Hilma’s dogged determination to express her spiritual experiences via her craft resulted in those dearest to her drifting away—she never found a lasting life partner too. Her paintings, sadly, only received recognition half a century after her passing.
Finally, finally, found the time to review this 2022 Swedish movie, which I watched nearly a month ago at the media screening for this year’s European Film Festival in Singapore. (The festival will open with this movie, as Sweden is this year’s featured country)
To share, I was a wee bit apprehensive before the screening; I worried about whether I would be bored silly. Not that I dislike art biopics or European art, but Hilma af Klint isn’t an artist I’m at all familiar with. It doesn’t help too that I’m not fond of abstract art. Oh, I don’t mind visiting a gallery full of ambiguous masterpieces during a holiday; I can appreciate them visually. But watch a two-hour historical movie about it? Err …
Well, the movie was quite not the viewing experience I expected, and I mean this in a good way. (Though for some, I’m sure what I loved was what they hated) In short, Lasse Hallström’s gentle, restrained narration is ostensibly a story about art and a female artist. However, it is in truth more a tragedy about a woman whose passion and beliefs never enjoyed true resonance.
Art is everywhere in this movie, be it replicas of af Klint’s works or poignantly beautiful pastoral stills. But at any point in time, art is also just the plot vehicle. The story resolutely remains one about Hilma’s struggles and bitterness. First against an institution and a society that disrespect woman artists, then against a world that just cannot comprehend her spiritual experiences.
Such a focus makes the movie far more watchable than, say, a straight Wikipedia-like historical tale. For viewers seeking to learn more about the art of Hilma af Klint or her creative processes, I suspect they will be disappointed. But for someone like me, the approach quite successfully made me crave to know more about this Swedish artist. Even if I don’t actually find her works visually appealing.
Outside of story focus, I think Hilma exudes an admirable neutrality too, one that is uncommon in cinematic works celebrating artists. Lasse Hallström makes it clear that Hilma af Klint was hardly the easiest person to be with, work with, or love. But the movie also doesn’t criticise or attempt to romanticise af Klint’s disposition. It simply tells a story, in a beautiful and lyrical way, with neither judgement nor argument.
The choice of using Tora Hallström and Lena Olin to play a younger and older Hilma, respectively, is furthermore a brilliant one to me … for I genuinely thought it was Tora Hallström playing both roles throughout. Goodness, I was so awed by what I thought was incredible ageing effects. I actually felt the movie should win an award for that! (Yeah, I didn’t read up beforehand …)
Jokes aside, Hallström and Olin, real-life mother and daughter, fully embrace the emotions that crippled Hilma’s complicated life. Hallström captures the spiraling, quiet fervour that alienated the artist from all. Olin effortlessly delivers the debilitating sorrow that’s left when such fervour burns out.
These depictions form a magnificent picture frame. They are also alike the delicate touches of light on a moody landscape masterpiece. They capture your attention before finding a permanent home in your memory.
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