Lost and Found
A friend rented the latest film by Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki, The Man Without a Past. "I thought it was supposed to be a comedy," she said later. "I liked it. But it wasn't a comedy."
Ah, the first Kaurismäki experience. Someone said he was funny. But this--this is bleak and slow and about as sidesplitting as watching a chilly Finn lose everything but his or her useless life in three minutes flat. Which, come to think of it, happens quite often in Kaurismäki movies--usually offscreen. (Too much drama would throw off-balance all the scenes dedicated to sitting and smoking.)
Critic Desson Howe wrote that "[t]o see one Kaurismäki is to see them all, but you should see them all." I disagree. I think a person needs to see more than one Kaurismäki, but less than 15. (The Walker is screening 15 freshly struck prints through the end of the month.) More than one so as to be weaned from the American notion of humor, with its sharp poke in the ribs and its laugh track; less than 15 because I just watched 15, some for the second time, and my chest aches from all the smoke. And the fatalism.
Kaurismäki is funny. But not ha-ha funny. Even droll seems a bit too Hugh Grant-ish for a director whose 1984 feature Calamari Union (screening at the Walker on Friday at 8:45 p.m.) follows 17 hard-smoking men named Frank, one of whom is beaten to death in a beauty shop, another of whom is shot for sharing his prediction of the future with a secretary (two of the film's funniest scenes). I'd maybe call him amusingly surreal. In Shadows of Paradise (January 24 at 7:00 p.m.), one ambitious garbage truck driver proclaims to another, "I won't die behind a garbage truck." And soon enough...
Kaurismäki jokes come dry or with a twist of the knife. Either way, you're allowed to chew on them for a while. You could say, for instance, that Kaurismäki's 1989 mini-hit Leningrad Cowboys Go America (January 28 at 7:45 p.m.) is a hilarious five-minute rock video dragged over 78 minutes of rough road. A power-mad manager (Matti Pellonpää) brings a Finnish folk group to America, hoping for the big payoff. Manager and band sport lacquered pompadours like thick medieval lances and long pointy shoes. Overwrought phallic symbolism may be funny 10 minutes in. Is it still funny after an hour? Yes, because the real joke is the constancy of the silliness, despite the wear of the road and the manager's willingness to adapt the band's music to whatever locals prefer. "Success" is something the band may stumble over, but they're still hapless fools with weird shoes.
The terms black comedy and tragicomedy imply a mix of the mordant and the humorous. In Kaurismäki films, there's no separating the two: What's funny is what's awful. In 1990's The Match Factory Girl (January 30 at 7:45 p.m.), a factory worker (Kati Outinen) supporting her mother and stepfather has a one-night stand: The lover sloughs her off in language so casually cruel that you have to laugh; the parents do likewise when she becomes pregnant. Her revenge takes the form of a pun--as does her occupation. (Strike her, and...whoosh!) Outinen, a Kaurismäki regular, so draws the eye with her subtle fire that the viewer might not notice the film's skillfully softened hues, like a black and white photo hand-tinted with watercolors. The director's darkest joke is the juxtaposition of this tale with TV references to the massacre at Tiananmen Square: Within your resistance lies your defeat--and vice versa.
Not that any character is aware of the irony. Indeed, in Ariel (January 23 at 7:45 p.m.) and Take Care of Your Scarf, Tatjana (January 24 at 8:30 p.m.), the protagonists' unconscious stupidity leaves Kaurismäki's vaunted empathy for the working class looking more like condescension. The Lapland miner (Turo Pajala) of Ariel (1988) can't even figure out the roof mechanism on his old convertible, let alone see through a con. And yet the film throws so much crap at its antihero so quickly--unemployment, mugging, jail--that I stopped wondering why he doesn't duck and began respecting his set-faced determination. He's like a Charlie Chaplin hero battered by industry--or, in this case, by the State, global economies, two-bit thieves, mafiosos, et cetera.
In the slight but stylish Tatjana, Kaurismäki sets up the Pellonpää character--a leather-jacketed, bell-bottomed, middle-aged "rocker"--as a drunken and pathetic bantam cock who can't even speak to the pretty hitchhikers whom he and his coffee-slugging buddy (Mato Valtonen) are driving to the harbor. As in Ariel, the extremity of it all elevates the dour proceedings into deadpan madness. The difference between Kaurismäki and fellow misery merchant Lars von Trier is that the former doesn't reward suffering; he'd rather the sufferer flip him the bird and make off with the movie.
Nevertheless, it does sometimes seem like Kaurismäki sees a world divided between venal managers and naive working-class victims--never more so than in his 1999 silent-film homage Juha (January 17 at 8:45 p.m.). A country couple is ravaged, according to gender, by a big city slicker in a shiny roadster. Ho hum. (Why make a traditional silent film when you've already taken the best of that genre and run it screaming into the surreal present?) The one pleasure--besides the nostalgic appreciation of form--is watching Outinen as the wife-turned-prostitute: Even suffering the exaggerations of the genre, Outinen conveys a depth of emotion that grants this hoary tale some power. (Admittedly, the current trade in Eastern European girls is brisk; last year's Lilya 4-Ever might as well have been called Juha II.)
To a certain extent, Kaurismäki has always been saved--or at least complicated--by his company of actors: Outinen, Pellonpää, Elina Salo, Andre Wilms, Sakari Kuosmanen, and a regular host of bit players. Caught in the director's highly composed scenes as much as in his plot traps, their ugly/beautiful faces hit all the gradations between wry and weathered, playfulness and pain, slyness and betrayed hurt. Within the more complex dynamics of Drifting Clouds (January 16 at 7:00 p.m.), Outinen creates a stubbornly conscious character struggling against unemployment and depression alongside her equally messed up husband. Unlike The Match Factory Girl, Drifting Clouds comes with a color palette that taunts the characters with its richness: This working class ravages itself with desire at the same time that it is ravaged by the whimsies of the global economy. Their (tentative) escape depends upon a camaraderie reminiscent of that between the director and his actors.
Kaurismäki once said that he makes his black and white films for himself, and the color films for commercial success. Given the original brilliance of Drifting Clouds and The Match Factory Girl, he might want to reconsider commercialism. On the other hand, his third masterwork is in black and white and it's a faithful treatment of La vie de bohème. The director's 1992 version (January 17 at 7:00 p.m.) of the classic story consolidates all the Kaurismäki trademarks: vintage music that's somehow ironic and true; fast and loose non sequiturs (somehow ironic and true); dramatic lighting (ditto); self-involved yet loyal protagonists played by Pellonpää, Wilms, and Evelyne Didi (somehow ironic, etcetera). It's a journey of sorts--and a tragedy, of course. And, unlike life, you can watch it again until you get the joke.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.