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Rapture with parrots: The delirious world of Finland’s king of melodrama

Photo: National Audiovisual Institute
Photo: National Audiovisual Institute

In The Overlook, A.V. Club film critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky examines the misfits, underappreciated gems, and underseen classics of film history.

“How can you wear a white wedding dress over your filthy body?”
The Cross Of Love

In the pantheon of unclassifiable filmmakers, there is a special place for Teuvo Tulio, Finland’s king of shameless melodrama. A fetishist, an outsider artist of 1940s and ’50s film, he was outrageous, incapable of subtlety, rising to a higher plane of camp—beyond Ken Russell, beyond Nicolas Cage doing an accent, beyond Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls. His films feature distorted, bug-eyed acting, sometimes petrified in ecstasy, equally redolent of silent cliffhanger serials and late-night infomercials; a camera style that deliriously scrambles silent Soviet and German cinema with smoky Hollywood glamour, while maintaining almost no continuity; plots that are as formulaic as they are insane. The paradox of Tulio is that, because his movies are so excessive and impulse-driven, they are also very pure. Cross Of Love, made in 1946, is the best introduction to his work—though this might be a matter of personal taste, because every movie Tulio made past a certain point in the 1940s is fundamentally the same. His style could just as easily be called a pathology.

Screenshot: Cross Of Love

At his most ecstatic, he split the difference between serial killer and poet, repeating a formula of purity and punishment, so enraptured by its imagery that his movies could scarcely be called narrative. The closest comparison I can think of are the early features of Canada’s Guy Maddin—something along the lines of Archangel or Careful—except that Tulio had no sense of irony. His movies, many of them classics of Finnish cinema, fail every standard except the one that considers film a euphoric medium. One might even call Tulio an addict. The pacing of his films is frenzied, jumpy, every scene disrupted in order to get to the next high as quickly as possible. There is no in-between in the Tulio-verse, no concept of contradiction. The years after World War II were his most creative period, though as is often the case with artists who chase far-out visions, it was also the period when he repeated himself the most: stories of country girls turned fallen women, often presented in confused flashback, busy with colliding images of bliss and vice, governed by no logic except that of fantasies and dreams.

I don’t have a tremendous amount of information about Tulio; most of what has been written about him is in Finnish. What I do know is that he was Latvian, born Teodors Turgai in what was then the Russian Empire. In his teens, he befriended another key figure in the history of Finnish film, Valentin Vaala. He too was a former Russian subject, born Valentin Ivanov. Tulio was initially an actor, seen as something of a heartthrob because of his indeterminately exotic looks, but switched to directing in the mid-1930s. Altogether, he directed 15 films, though in a fittingly Tulio-esque turn of events, three of them were lost in a fire. He spent a decade working on his last (and only color) film, Sensuela (1973), a mix of sexploitation, Lappish folk dress, and soap opera that still finds room for Nazis and reindeer castration—a movie so inept and bizarre that I have to limit any mention of it to this one sentence, lest I get too carried away. Eventually, he became a recluse and refused to let his films be shown, though they had been very popular in their time.

Screenshot: Cross Of Love

Cross Of Love contains all the Tulio trademarks: bucolic Scandinavian landscapes; animal reactions shots; bare breasts; crucifixions; sailors; women forced into prostitution under insufficiently explained circumstances; cigarette-and-booze-fueled dissipation; studio sets built to such unforgiving Expressionist specifications that the actors have to crouch to get through the doorways; bombastic and incongruous classical music cues. It signals its shamelessness from the opening credits, which unfurl over stormy seas filmed from a speedboat, announcing that the movie is “adapted from a short story by Pushkin”—which it isn’t—to the sound of Bach’s “Toccata And Fugue In D Minor.” (Even if you don’t know Bach from Beethoven, it’s probably what you think of when someone says “organ music.”) As in most of Tulio’s best-known films, the star is Regina Linnanheimo, his off-screen romantic partner and occasional co-writer. As Josef Von Sternberg, the most intoxicating stylist of ’30s Hollywood, found his muse in the sultry Marlene Dietrich, so Tulio found his in Linnanheimo, a wholesome blond who gave the impression that someone else were remotely controlling her face.

In Cross Of Love, she plays Riitta, the naïve daughter of the parrot-hating-but-also-parrot-owning lighthouse keeper Lighthouse-Kalle (the unbelievably hammy Oscar Tengström), who falls for the first man who washes up on their island—a sailor played by the actor and filmmaker Ville Salminen. It should be noted that Salminen, who distinguished himself here by giving some of the most disgusting screen kisses in film history, is the father of the great Finnish cinematographer Timo Salminen, best known for his work with Aki Kaurismäki, whose own proletarian melodramas suggest a droll and ironic reimagining of Tulio’s sensibility. And what is that sensibility exactly? In the Tulio-verse, there are only absolutes and extremes: sainthood and sin, beauty and ugliness, unconditional love and violent madness. The performances are as exaggerated as masks—rictus smiles, cartoonish looks of shock, filmed either in beatific, gauzy close-ups or from harsh, unflattering low angles.

Screenshot: Cross Of Love

Rarely is there anything like a match between shots, and even when there is, it tends to distort reality. Tulio’s visual metaphors are blunt, with characters framed suggestively—a word used here in the loosest sense—through parted legs or imprisoned by a foreground of brass bars. (However, the central image—a painting of a bare-breasted, crucified Riitta done by a would-be suitor—is bizarre and memorably nonsensical.) His interest in realism is nonexistent. It’s obvious from certain scenes that the production had access to a real lighthouse, yet Tulio periodically uses a cheap-looking model for exterior shots, placed on a rock that is presumably meant to represent the island where Riitta lives with Lighthouse-Kalle. A climactic sequence is periodically interrupted by cuts to a woman singing a Russian romans. Characters lose and regain their senses on a moment’s notice. The truth is that I find it to be as irresistible as it is unintentionally hilarious.

Perhaps the two are interrelated, because Tulio movies are nothing if not a blast. They are unabashedly morbid and titillating, naïve and completely outré, veering abruptly from the preachy to the lurid. It’s part of the reason I picked one to mark this column’s return from hiatus; The Overlook has a broad scope, but I feel like the best thing it can do is find a place for those movies that don’t fit a qualitative category. Bad movies in the Wiseau-Wood sense are stiff, wooden, and draggy at least to some degree, which is something that can’t be said of Cross Of Love; Tulio’s images carry an obsessive, heightened charge. It’s his refusal to acknowledge anything except absolutes that makes Tulio a poet of kitsch—a strange, mad figure in pursuit of filmic beauty, but fixated on revulsion. The irony is that it also means that his work exists in a transitional state, equal parts horrendous and sublime.