Spectacles of suffering and sex, Finnish director Teuvo Tulio’s films are so similar in construction and theme that they run together like one long soap opera composed of a scattershot jumble of bucking horses, whores, crying babies, sailors, farmers, beer halls, weasel-faced men and zaftig, wild-eyed women. His style can be Eisensteinian, with expressionistic montages of the shining faces of the proletariat intercut with kittens, crucifixes, or half-smoked cigarettes, but he adores Hollywood, mimicking in his own over-enthusiastic way, Cukor, Lubitsch and Von Sternberg. Musical scores rarely match action, bombastic blares of brass and strings, or frantic accordion songs erupting beneath scenes. Now considered a Finnish national treasure, Tulio directed only fifteen films, three of which were lost in a fire, from the 1930s until the 70s before disappearing into obscurity.
The recent rediscovery of Tulio by U.S. audiences is based on four films, two pre-war "haystack dramas" (The Song of the Scarlet Flower  and In the Field of Dreams, ) featuring the hearty peasantry farming, logging, and reclining in meadows, and a duo of post-war "social problem" films about women who make the fatal choice to move from country to city, ensuring a quick descent into prostitution (The Way You Wanted Me,  and Cross of Love, ). Last year, the four films showed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, and this January they screened at Anthology Film Archives, giving American cinephiles a chance to catch up on a filmmaker the Finns know well. In fact, lovingly produced Finnish boxed sets of his work bring to light new facets of his oeuvre, including two dramas that substitute madness, adultery and alcoholism for prostitution, Restless Blood (1946) and You Have Gone Into My Blood (1958), as well as his unsettling final film, Sensuela (1972), a Laplandish sexploitation remake of Cross of Love.
Restless Blood and the awkwardly titled in English You Have Gone Into My Blood both star Regina Linnanheimo, Tulio’s devoted companion and collaborator. Linnanheimo is a melodramatic actress in the most old fashioned sense of the word—her mugging harks back to early silent film tradition as she widens her eyes to an unnatural extent, lets her mouth gape open, and claws at her face to indicate distress. But at her best she’s warm and jaunty, recalling a happier, more manic Bette Davis. In Restless Blood, Linnanheimo’s resemblance to Davis is accentuated by the plots’ facile similarity to Dark Victory. Following a characteristically bizarre and intricate storyline, Linnanheimo plays Sylvi, whose child is run over by a bus, prompting her to drink poison. She goes blind in the process, causing her husband to lust after her much younger sister. After undergoing a dangerous operation to regain her sight, she hides her repaired vision behind dark eyeglasses, so she can spy on her sister and husband as they carry on their affair, and eventually goes mad from the strain. During the last noir tinged scene, Sylvi speeds along a highway at night, still wearing her dark glasses and smoking furiously, transformed into a femme fatale.
Tulio is obsessed with his actresses, and ecstatic close-ups are his forte. A tear flecked face, a concentrated expression of near orgasmic pain or pleasure- he enables actresses to express their euphoria and anguish in the most beautiful of ways. But he's equally adept at stripping them of their glamour, letting them sag into ugliness. When they tip over the inevitable edge into prostitution, madness or addiction, they're all double chins, chapped lips and sagging cheeks. Consumed by the idea of lost virtue, and the resulting downfall into misery and degradation that awaits a sexually active woman, his films show radiant purity disintegrating into moral and physical decay over and over again. Never one to shy away from an obvious metaphor, in the final scene of The Way You Wanted Me, Tulio shows the syphilitic heroine actually stepping through a pile of manure as she solicits her customers.
"Men are shits, every one of them. They talk of love, but mean sex. And while we want love, they want our bottoms." So goes the colorful rant of a prostitute in Sensuela. A similar speech is given in almost all of Tulio’s films, as a broken down woman rages at the puzzled man who has unthinkingly robbed her of her virginity, her calling card to a virtuous life (the forceful, rolling r’s of the Finnish language lend themselves well to hate-filled tirades). There is an unswervingly visceral honesty in the anger expressed by these female characters—they know they’re lost, but they still have voices to lament the fate their bodies have condemned them to. Tulio could be considered proto-feminist, his anguished prostitutes and wives prefiguring the isolated women of Fassbinder and Akerman, but he gets suspicious satisfaction from female subjugation and pain, manipulating their unhappiness to sensationalistic effect. Scholar Anu Koivunen explains this dichotomy between identification and exploitation by pointing out that "Tulio was both an idealist and a producer of cheap films and a recycler of pictures." The serious issues and high flown ethics contained in Tulio are dragged to earth and distorted by his desire to excite the viewer, morality clashing with pulp.
The Finnish national tendency toward alcoholism lurks behind Tulio’s association of destruction with drinking—downing the first shot marks the beginning of dissipation in all of his films. Alcohol is inextricably intertwined with sex, corruption of innocence demonstrated by a woman accepting a glass of wine from a man, lost virginity symbolized by a tipped over or broken champagne flute. Linnanheimo's final collaboration with Tulio addressed alcoholism head on in You Have Gone Into My Blood (1958). Since his career was on its final downturn in the mid-50s, the film was made under the auspices of alcohol prevention education to ensure funding. A project she scripted herself, Linnanheimo plays Rea, a sheltered plain-jane who is driven to drink after two worldly men seduce her into a romantic triangle.
At one point, deep in the throes of a bender, Rea wakes up with her head on the hairy bare chest of a man, and as she blinks her eyes, the camera slowly pans along her dress, slip and shoes strewn across the floor. She, a married woman, jumps up and hastily dresses while her lover lights a cigarette and smirks. A blunt depiction of a regrettable one night stand, and shockingly candid for the 1950s, it’s old hat for Tulio, who never misses a chance to show what goes on after the lecherous man invites the pretty girl into his bedroom. Following a brief attempt at redemption, Rea transforms from a pampered lady who lunches into a crazed, beer swilling, gutter dwelling bag lady, following the same path of self destruction all her characters are doomed to tread. Ostensibly due to her stylized, outmoded acting, You Have Gone Into My Blood terminated Linnanheimo’s career, but it remains a disturbing portrait of addiction, a female version of The Long Weekend.
The most bizarre production of Tulio's career, Sensuela, was also his final film, made a full ten years after You Have Got Into My Blood. A major failure, when the film was finally released in theaters in 1972 after years of production, it was seen by a total of 650 people. Half-heartedly updating Cross of Love with psychedelic colors and some swinging, groovy Finns, Tulio displays only remnants of the passion and visual flair that made his earlier films so involving. His leading lady, Marianne Mardi, is stunning, a Nordic version of Michelle Williams, but she, along with the other actors, speaks in a zombified, affectless manner, against sterile, flatly lit sets, as the public domain score to Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake relentlessly repeats in the background. The introduction of a grotesque subplot involving the neutering of reindeer and men by mouth (don’t ask) is the moment Tulio finally plunges off the deep end as a director. Taken out of the context of Tulio’s body of work, Sensuela could seem like a brilliant example of no-budget sexploitation, but the drama and craft displayed in his past films makes his descent into blatant camp ultimately depressing. Still, the Lapland setting, complete with pointy capped natives and reindeer herds, and a handful of amateurish but erotic sex scenes, succeeds in making Sensuela a curiosity, and a suitably weird cap to Tulio’s strange career.