At some point right around the time the artist Tom of Finland (real name Touko Laaksonen) died in the early 1990s, I remember seeing Daddy and the Muscle Academy, a documentary about his incredibly influential gay erotic art, featuring what I’d imagine was his final in-depth interview. And while the doc focused more on his art and impact on the gay male world (almost more so in America), I always thought a more traditional biopic about his life would be fascinating. Twenty-five years later, it’s time to see if that is the case.
Directed by Dome Karukoski, Tom of Finland (the country’s official submission for 2018 Oscar consideration, by the way) gives a fascinating portrayal of the moments in Touko’s life that lingered with him and informed his art—from his days in the Finnish army during World War II to his earliest, dangerous encounters with anonymous cruising at a time when it was illegal throughout Europe to be gay.
The director has a subtle but effective style of holding a moment just a second or two longer than is necessary, and that clues us in that something significant is impressing upon the young artist (played across roughly 50 years by the brilliant Pekka Strang). When Touko the soldier spots an invading paratrooper land in an isolated field, he kills him stealthily but takes the time to study his handsome face (it’s one that will be familiar to fans of Tom of Finland’s work). While maintaining a career as a successful advertising artist, he also builds up a collection of drawings of muscle-bound men of authority (military types, police officers, and his personal favorite, leather-clad bikers), all with barely contained boners and lustful looks in their eyes.
Tom of Finland’s art work wasn’t just adored by gay men around the world; it created and personified a powerful hedonistic lifestyle built around fetish, porn mustaches and an S&M dynamic. His images were the stuff of fantasies, but they also led to a great deal of controversy and trouble in his life, with the rise of AIDS and many saying that his portrayal of reckless sexual behaviors was a factor in the spread of the epidemic.
Still, he achieved true superstardom when he came stateside and met his biggest fans, led by a man named Doug (Seumas F. Sargent), who helped hook him up with a proper publisher who would print his work on proper paper and not like cheaply produced porn material. There’s something of a missing-link aspect to Tom of Finland when it comes to his popularity jump. We never really get to experience his rise in popularity; he goes from underground to world famous in just a scene or two, and I’m guessing the true journey took years.
From a screenplay by Aleksi Bardy, some of the film’s best moments are also its most intimate. The scenes with Touko and his equally talented but far more conservative sister Kaija (Jessica Grabowsky) are quite moving. One of note sees him reveal the true nature of his artwork, which she is mostly oblivious to. Although Touko is portrayed as a bit of a player, he also was involved in a long-term relationship with a dancer named Veli (Lauri Tilkanen), who comes to live with Touko and Kaija simply as a lodger and quickly turns into something more substantial.
Director Karukoski (whose next film is the already-shot J.R.R. Tolkien biopic Tolkien, starring Nicholas Hoult) brings a great deal of compassion and understanding to Touko’s unusual road to fame. But the movie is almost so by-the-numbers that it removes any genuine edge and raunchiness to the mix. Sure, we get plenty of looks at his drawings, but the real world that his fantasies inspired are left largely off the screen, with a few brief exceptions. Still, propelled by Strang’s exceptional performance and some nice touches when it comes to visually illustrating inspiration, Tom of Finland is an above-average examination of an artist whose work is still debated and appreciated today.
The film opens today for a two-week run at the Gene Siskel Film Center. On Sunday, January 7, after the 5pm showing, director Dome Karukoski will be present via Skype for audience discussion.