Credit: Juno Films
by Sarah Williams Featured Film Horizon Line

Hilma — Lasse Hallström

April 14, 2023

Art is subjective, as is the concept of firsts. Hilma af Klint can be classed as the first abstract painter, years before the more widely regarded Wassily Kandinsky. Just as name recognition usurps staked territory in that case, Lasse Hallström biopic Hilma is actually the second film about her life in recent years, just three years after the fantastic study in the historical composition documentary Beyond the Visible. These are big shoes to fill, and unfortunately, even with Lena Olin’s warm performance as af Klint, Hilma pales in comparison. Its exploration of the artist’s life is touching, seamlessly interweaving family tragedy, women’s social circles of the era, same-sex desire, and an interest in the occult as a backdrop for her artistic experimentation. Despite this, the decades-spanning coming-of-art narrative hardly acknowledges her place as an artist, or even her technique, for that matter. Rather, Hallström meanders in social barriers, and personal effects, that never seek pattern in the shapes on af Klint’s canvas.

Unfortunately, Hallström’s mainstreamed Hollywood experience leads Hilma to such by-the-books territory that it becomes jarring in contrast to its subject. The twinkly music and pastel costuming become cloyingly twee, matching a surface-level aesthetic interpretation of Hilma af Klint’s art. For an avant-garde pioneer at the forefront of formal abstraction in art, the crystal-clear biopic that is scared to experiment feels disjointed. There are a few brief sequences showing the development of her images, but none go beyond a simple animation of appearing shapes. The film’s closest idea of abstraction is its incessant use of green screens, which, rather than the intended effect of mimicking early cinema’s backdrops, looks unfinished without heavier stylization. Overlays of loose brush strokes and circular forms are expected to take the place of any richer interaction between Klint’s art and her persona. And while it is refreshing that this biopic for once doesn’t ignore its subject’s queer desires, and its presence in her art, it comes at the cost of any technical elaboration on the form.

For a largely Swedish film with a Swedish filmmaker, actors, and historical subject, the mass appeal choice to film entirely in English is almost insulting. Spoken Scandinavian languages are replaced with varying dialects of accented English, despite written text in the film appearing in English. This is one of the far too many smoothed-over off-camera choices that flatten Hilma’s narrative — which is so enticing in her engagement with spirituality — into one that can be marketed and easily categorized. It’s especially painful that this comes less than two years after the superior Tove, another Swedish production about a queer female artist around the same era, which kept its characters’ native language, and playfully matched Tove Janssen’s artistry with a bright color palette and whimsical character dynamics.

When Hilma allows its subject’s work to be contextualized within the broader art world, it’s a personification of its creators. Art is never separate from an artist — Edvard Munch materializes to find mutual inspiration in her work, and vice versa. Rather than letting the images converse with each other, they are editorialized by a reflection of both artists’ public personas. This is not inherently an “incorrect” way to engage with art, but it does a disservice to present the personal lives of these artists as nothing more than a way for a mythical canon to converse. Rather than moving beyond the fact that af Klint’s work was initially ignored by history, the dismissal of whether her work could even be considered art is the focus until she is able to leave society. And even though her (rather lifeless) queer relationships and strange whims are at least engaged with here, the entire film still feels downright passionless. The final product disappointingly feels more like an effort from the filmmaker behind the phoned-in Nutcracker rubbish from 2018 than it does the one who gave us My Life As a Dog.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 15.