By Evan Lambert
Who was your imaginary friend growing up?
Was your imaginary friend humanoid, or were they a gender non-binary fantasy creature? Did they have a cute name like Mr. Pickles?
Well, in the limited release film Tom of Finland, the main character’s imaginary friend is an impossibly buff mustachioed power top with a leather fetish and a horse dick. His name is Kake, but it could just as well be Mr. Pickles. Unfortunately, the movie itself, while lovely, is not quite as piquant or prurient.
Tom of Finland’s protagonist — the famed Finnish artist Touko Laaksonen — does not invent Kake because he needs a friend. He invents him because he needs release. Kake, who always appears to Laaksonen in a leather daddy cop uniform, calls to mind the aesthetic of his oppressors: The hypermasculine cops who hunted (and aroused) homosexuals like Laaksonen in Post-World War II Finland. Though Kake is an embodiment of Laaksonen’s fear, he’s also the epitome of Laaksonen’s sexual ideal. It only makes sense, then, that Laaksonen would proceed to create whole comics of Kake engaged in explicit gay sex.
While you’d think that a film about gay erotica would feature, you know, explicit gay sex, Tom of Finland never seeks to transgress or titillate. Instead of lingering lasciviously on the anatomy of Laaksonen’s pornographic comics, the camera pulls away as soon as it catches a glimpse of penetration. Even Laaksonen’s early same-sex encounters are presented as more touchingly romantic than dangerously carnal. Thus, by taking the inherently naughty, propulsive story of Laaksonen’s art and streamlining it through a prestige biopic format, the movie actually dilutes Laaksonen’s artistic impulses and opts for well-lit romance and an inspirational human rights message. While pleasant to look at, Tom of Finland never stirs the id.
Still, the movie rightly frames Laaksonen’s art as a brave, subversive act of rebellion. Though constantly at risk of being discovered or even arrested in his native Finland, Laaksonen, a WWII vet, eventually submits his work to magazine editors using the alias “Tom of Finland” — and ends up making a splash in the burgeoning LGBTQ communities of coastal California. His hulking, horny creations are instantly embraced by queer activists, and his masc4masc aesthetic becomes a model for young gay men seeking an outward-facing identity. Thus, “Tom” is able to heighten the visibility of the Western queer rights movement and — less conspicuously — fulfill his former partner’s wish to “make sure everyone knows we exist.”
Thankfully, the movie is helped along by Pekka Strang, who is wearily handsome and charismatic as Laaksonen. While Strang is never as fiery as his character’s erotic drawings, his floppy, wavy hair and moustache suggest a quietly masculine proto-hipster look, and his soulful eyes suggest his passions run as deep as the creases on his face. On the other hand, Lauri Tilkanen, who plays Laaksonen’s very non-Kake pretty boy partner, is mostly just a Finnish cross between Zac Efron and Dan Stevens. While adept at conveying a sense of longing, Tilkanen never reaches the heights of passion that this movie sorely needs. However, that may just be this film’s watered-down script hamstringing him as an actor.
Ultimately, it is up to this movie’s soundtrack to give it the edge it needs. Thanks to Finnish composer Hildur Guðnadóttir’s excellent work on the movie’s scenes set in Europe, Laaksonen’s early dalliances are lent a sense of urgency and creeping menace. In Guðnadóttir’s hands, a nighttime rendezvous in the park becomes darkly and grotesquely beautiful. Later in the California scenes, L.A.-based composer Lasse Enersen’s less-constricted themes allow the film to breathe — and suggest that Laaksonen can too.
Thus, while Tom of Finland never reaches any epic heights, it at least offers the core story of a man — and movement — successfully achieving liberation. It also serves as a history lesson for anyone who has ever wondered where the Village People got their costume inspiration.
Flagrantly Rated: *** (3 out of 5 Stars)