In order to crack the nut that is Tom of Finland—brand name for the Scandanavian pornographic artist whose drawings might be the definitive modern gay erotica—filmmaker Dome Karuskoski has made a bio-pic titled Tom of Finland whose concept accepts the notorious porn creations as personal expression.
The film takes on Touko Laaksonen’s real-life experience as a World War II soldier in the Finnish army who channeled his battlefield experience of masculine camaraderie (military, illicit and tragic) into private sketches. Karukoski and actor Pekka Strang in the morose lead role depict Laaksonen’s biography along with his inner life.
“Do you have dreams?” Laaksonen is asked by his commanding officer after their furtive meeting in the woods. His erotic musings are interweaved with the stages of his career as a commercial artist haunted by war experience and sexual frustration. The fact that his drawings stem from repression could explain the essence of pornography. Even Jean Genet might approve Karukoski’s definitive moment: Laaksonen knifes an enemy paratrooper and, captivated by the Russian’s lushly masculine features, he recalls them—resurrects them—by drawing an iconic caricature that he names “Kake,” a Finnish derivative of cock.
Photo Courtesy Kino Lorber
Laaksonen signs his drawings “Tom,” a pseudonym that protects his identity during an era of gay repression, but it’s also a worldly tag linked to the uncannily erotic masculine renderings. The Tom of Finland look is as individual as any couturier’s. Its focal points are carnal: chins, lips, asses, nipples, penises, testicles—all as erogenous protuberances. Whatever the scenarios, volume is used to convey powerful feelings of physical desire. Torsos are exaggerated to the limits of maximum tumescence. Every Tom of Finland figure—endless varieties of the same-sex ideal—repeats Kake ad infinitum.
Using a sense of compulsive, masturbatory repetitiveness to dramatize Laaksonen’s frustration make this a less sentimental biography than The Danish Girl, without overdoing the p.c. idea of social oppression. In fact, the key moment of liberation comes when Laaksonen, having monetized his drawings and distributed them through the international post, approaches a mail box and the scene shifts from wintry Helsinki to the wide, sunny expanse of Southern California. That’s where a young American (Doug, played by Seumus F. Sargent), embarks on his sexual social life, inspired by Tom of Finland’s strokebook idealizations.
Photo Courtesy Kino Lorber
Tom of Finland also cracks the hard nut of censorship—the panic or distaste that judges porn as destructive—through its honesty about Laaksonen’s life. His relationship with his sister Kaija (Jessica Grabowski), also a talented artist, turns into rivalry when both are drawn to a border, Nipa (Lauri Tilkanen). The sexual and emotional complications resemble Women in Love. At a family gathering, Kaija rolls in the grass to seduce Nipa whose attraction to Laaksonen is visualized in an upside-down water reflection. It’s Ken Russell-sophisticated, but without the emotional frenzy.
The trope of Kake (the symbol of Tom’s military-based leather fetish) materializing at moments of personal irony evokes Russell’s pioneering artist biographies. Kake’s suggestion of a recurring erotic ideal also recalls the ending of John Huston’s Toulouse-Lautrec bio-pic Moulin Rogue (1952) where the subjects of his paintings appear and greet him.
This idea goes beyond pornography’s fixed neurotic limits—even though the framing device of the aged, essentially solitary and slightly creepy fetishist being celebrated years later at an International Mr. Leather convention of queer clones seems to contradict the idea of individual liberation, Yet. seeing Laakonsens’ fantasies realized exponentially confirms that his erotica is timeless. Tom of Finland commemorates gay culture’s Toulouse-Lautrec.