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In the face of despair, treachery, human cruelty, the brutal indifference of history and social institutions, the illusion of love, the predations of time, and the certainty of death, Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki still manages to have fun. Itís the irony and the timing, perhaps, or the silences pregnant with hilarity and horror, or the austerity and precision of a style that breathes ice and makes a 70-minute movie ache with the emptiness of a lifetime, or the deadpan stares of some of the greatest faces to be seen in contemporary cinema. Kaurismäkiís bleakness can make Ingmar Bergman look like a Pollyanna, but his charactersí pluck in the face of adversity rivals Capraís, and his flights of lunacy recall the Marx Brothers.
Throw in some Karl Marx as well and the result is an acquired taste. Many have acquired it since the release of The Man Without a Past (2002; August 21 at 8 p.m. and August 24 at noon), a 2002 Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, which opens the Museum of Fine Artsí "The Films of Aki Kaurismäki" retrospective. More upbeat than most of his films, and at 97 minutes much longer, it makes for a seductive introduction to his work, and its tale of a man who loses everything, including his memory and his identity, but in so doing discovers who he really is and what he truly desires (she works for the Salvation Army) is the fullest expression of themes resonant in his career from the beginning.
His first feature, an adaptation of Dostoyevskyís Crime and Punishment (1983; August 28 at 8 p.m. and August 31 at 11 a.m.), may also be his least typical film. Although it establishes most of the themes ó fate, redemption, compassion, futility ó that would pervade his work to come, it does so without so much as a rueful smile. It opens with a scene more Kafka-esque than Dostoyevskian: a cockroach on a butcherís block, a cleaver chopping it in half. Wielding the ax is Rahikainen (Markku Toikka, who looks like Steven Wright but tells no jokes), and in short order heís exterminating another "louse," a nondescript local businessman, for no apparent reason.
But a stranger, Eeva (Aino Seppo), interrupts the crime. She allows Rahikainen to flee, but he wonít let her alone, putting her in a position where she must decide whether heíll be apprehended. This passive-aggressive cat-and-mouse game develops into a sado-masochistic romance of sorts complicated by the attentions of Eevaís sleazy boss, by the dogged and dull-witted pursuit of a homicide detective, and by some twists of fate that in funnier Kaurismäki films would seem ironic outbreaks of the absurd but here appear like mere melodramatic coincidences. Eeva thinks she sees something redeemable in Rahikainen, but he remains a sourpuss to the end, noting that everyone is alone, we all have to die, and after death there is no Heaven but something else, probably "spiders."
As I recall, the Dostoyevsky original was more lighthearted. No doubt Kaurismäki felt a need to unleash his whimsy, because his next film, the extemporized Calamari Union (1985; August 21 at 6:15 p.m. and August 24 at 10:30 a.m.), makes little sense. Fed up with the futility of life and erratic bus schedules, a union of losers named Frank (15 in all) plus one called Pekka (who keeps repeating the Taxi Driver line "Are you talkiní to me?") set out to find the promised but perhaps mythic Helsinki neighborhood of Eira. One by one each Frank is bumped off or disappears, with the final pair last seen floating in a tiny boat to Estonia. More amusing in description than in execution, Union is a matter of too few jokes and too many Franks. Kaurismäki himself is alleged to have said, "Calamari Union was the first and last film I made either being drunk or having a hangover."
Or too much under the influence of Jean-Luc Godard and R. Crumb. He would have a lot more luck along these free-form lines with his Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989; September 4 at 8:30 p.m., September 7 at 2 p.m., and September 20 at 4 p.m.), a shaggy-dog road movie about a crew of Finnish musicians with hyperbolic pompadours, "the worst rock band in the world," who travel the US in retro Cadillacs en route to an engagement in Mexico. The movie brought Kaurismäki international, if cultish, attention, though he has himself described it as "the worst film in the history of cinema, unless you count Sylvester Stalloneís films."
Kaurismäkiís best work seeks the middle ground between the deadly portentousness of Crime and Punishment and the dadaist frivolity of Union and Cowboys. Just the title of Hamlet Goes Business (1987; September 3 at 6:30 p.m. and September 6 at 2 p.m.) indicates that it takes itself less seriously than his previous venture into literature. Set in the business world of contemporary Helsinki (thus predating Michael Almereydaís pretentious 2000 version of the play), it offers a Hamlet who loves ham: heís chomping on a slice as he comes across his poisoned father, whom he thinks is "sleeping."
As in Shakespeare, Uncle "Klaus" has knocked off Hamletís dad to take over the "concern" (and wed Hamletís mother, Gertrude, though the Oedipal theme is virtually nil here), and he plans to sell off its timber and mining interests to sew up the rubber-duck market (rubber ducks are a recurrent motif in Kaurismäkiís films, along with dogs, muggings, big Detroit automobiles, Finnish rockabilly, Billie Holiday, unemployment, and Tchaikovskyís Pathétique Symphony). Seems a bit puerile, but perhaps Kaurismäki is engaging in Hamletís mad act himself, with the broad comedy not quite concealing the disturbing noirish compositions and the looming pity and terror.
Prominently missing from Kaurismäkiís Hamlet is "To be or not to be" ó maybe because he thinks the question is rhetorical. A matter-of-fact suicide opens Ariel (1988; September 3 at 5 p.m. and September 6 at 12:30 p.m.). The local mine has closed; a father and a son, both employees, share a drink. "Iíve had it with this shit," says the father, giving his son the keys to his Cadillac convertible. "Donít do what I do," he adds, then steps into the menís room and shoots himself.
The son, Taisto (Turo Pajala), takes dadís keys and advice and heads for Helsinki, where heís hit on the head and robbed (shades of The Man Without a Past) and falls in love with Irmeli (Susanna Haavisto), another woman in a uniform (a meter maid this time, not a Salvation Army volunteer). Unlike the amnesiac of the later film, however, Taisto remembers just enough to hold a grudge and get himself in jail. Like Eeva in Crime and Punishment, though with a far more satisfying mix of pathos and farce, Irmeli sees the goodness in Taisto and stands by her man.
In Kaurismäkiís world, men can be saved by the love of a good woman. Not so lucky are the women. Ophelia, for example, gets a raw deal, though not from the actress who portrays her: Kati Outinenís luminous performance cuts through the filmís horseplay like a headmasterís glare. She has the face of a silent-movie star, and depending on the lighting and the angle, she can look like the subject of Edvard Münchís painting Puberty or like Max von Sydow in The Seventh Seal. She is Kaurismäkiís muse (she plays the poker-faced, resourceful heroine of The Man Without a Past), and she stars in some of his most formally rigorous and poetic works.
Such as the minimalist The Match Factory Girl (1990; September 4 at 7 p.m. and September 7 at 12:30 p.m.), in which she plays Iris, the title prole. Iris spends her days turning big logs into tiny matchsticks at the factory, and she comes home to serve dinner to her silent, indignant parents. On weekends, she goes to a local club and is snubbed by the other dancers. When her father smacks her face after she spends some of her wages on a dress, she rebels by picking up a guy at a disco. He is, of course, a creep, and Irisís fate takes a Dostoyevskian turn.
Few recent films equal the silent eloquence of The Match Factory Girl ó the first line of dialogue ("A small beer") isnít spoken until 12 minutes into its 68-minute length. Not even Kaurismäkiís silent black-and-white film Juha (1999; September 25 at 5:30 p.m. and September 27 at 4:15 p.m.), an adaptation of a classic Finnish novel by Juhani Ano, can match it, though it evokes in look and story Jean Vigoís masterpiece LíAtalante (1926), which Kaurismäki has said is one of his greatest influences.
Outinen here plays Marja, a simple peasant girl married to the farmer of the title, a much older man with a limp who raised her as an orphan. Their life, limpidly photographed by Kaurismäki regular Timo Salminen, glows with the simple joys of the country. They bring their cabbages into market and dance with joy when these are sold, "as happy," the title card reads, "as children."
Enter the serpent into their Eden: Shemeikka (André Wilms), who swills whiskey from a flask as he tears down the road in his "Sierck" (actually a Corvette, but bearing the original German name of the director Douglas Sirk, and signaling perhaps the arrival of the melodramatic mode). The car breaks down near Juhaís farm; Juha extends his hospitality and so seals the fate of everyone. An admirable experiment, perhaps, but self-conscious and mannered, Juha suffers, like Crime and Punishment before it, from a lack of irony. It simply isnít much fun.
I Hired a Contract Killer (1990; September 11 at 6:15 p.m. and September 13 at 10:30 a.m.), on the other hand, spins its one joke into a delightful comic fugue. Jean-Pierre Léaud plays the meek and stunned Henri, a Frenchman living in London who becomes despondent when heís fired from his scrivener-like job at "Her Majestyís Waterworks." When his attempts at suicide prove ineffectual, he resorts to the title alternative and, of course, immediately finds reason to live.
I Hired a Contract Killer is quietly hilarious throughout, but the scene in which Henri shouts "Where I come from we would eat a place like this for breakfast!" to a pub full of thugs alone qualifies this director as a man of genius. Like all of Kaurismäkiís films and his career in general, Killer proves not only that less is more, but that the closer one gets to nothing, the more everything becomes clear.
Issue Date: August 15 - August 21, 2003
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