An iris closes in on a face and bursts back outwards. A landscape shot is split open. Figures bend as the screen is folded as if it were a page in a book. When Teuvo Tulio cuts a scene, he does so with grand gestures of assertion that verge on the absurd. Brazenly melodramatic, his edits are emblematic of his film language, where shifts in the narrative are signalled and character motivations marked with gaudy metaphors. His contemporaries criticised his exaggeration, reiteration and obsession with prurience; nevertheless, for admirers since, who range from fellow Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismäki to cult mavericks Guy Maddin and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, satisfaction has been derived from embracing Tulio’s kitsch brushstrokes, which are delivered with conviction.
A montage of tempestuous winds and angry waves: within seconds of the opening of Cross of Love (1945), Tulio makes sure we know discord will ensue. In this adaptation of Pushkin’s ‘The Stationmaster’, Riita, the daughter of a lighthouse owner, dreams of escape until a shipwrecked playboy lures her out of her father’s grasp and, like the waves, takes her away into the city. An all too recognisable set-up, the city is of course infested with putrid greed, corrupted codes and dangerous deeds that evoke von Sternberg (Underworld, 1927) and von Stroheim (Greed, 1924). Abandoned and lost, the innocent Riita turns amoral and amorous as she caves into a life of prostitution, a fallen woman í la G.W. Pabst’s Lulu. Cross of Love follows the patterns of Finland’s post-war ‘problem films’, which warned their viewers of social horrors (at least Riita escapes syphilis, a common fate for the genre’s characters) and incorporates betrayal and hoodwinking antagonists, themes that were censored in wartime cinema. The moral decay of the city positioned against the idyllic glow of countryside fields was also typical of Tulio’s 1940s scenarios (The Way You Wanted Me, 1944), and only a slight departure from his pre-war ‘haystack dramas’, pastoral scandals rooted and trapped within their settings (The Song of the Scarlet Flower, 1938, and In the Field of Dreams, 1940).
Nevertheless, Cross of Love remains a standout and Tulio’s most impressive achievement. Riita’s plight is portrayed with a riveting sexual frankness that was remarkable for its time, and Tulio never shies away from full-frontal nudity or candid metaphors that barely conceal the lust that sinks Riita into the mud of the city streets. Just as Riita begins to lose control, she meets a young artist who asks her to model for a painting, which gives the film its title; depicting her almost nude and with her arms spread against a cross, Riita’s portrait more than evokes original sin and freezes her fall into a startling image: ‘we’re trying to capture the suffering…’ Deliciously delirious, the actress Regina Linnanheimo, whose unapologetic madness somehow elicits compassion, summons sincerity in Riita’s descent from luminescence to darkness. Occasionally, the music is so overpowering that Tulio abandons dialogue completely, instead allowing close-ups of Linnanheimo’s face to dance with Bach. At times uncomfortably florid, Tulio’s Cross of Love is melodrama at its most wildly excessive.