Lionised as the genius anti-art filmmaker of Finland, the writer, producer, director, editor and some-time actor known as Aki Kaurismäki is an icon of world cinema. At the helm directing seventeen feature films in just under thirty years, he is unsurprisingly a huge influence on NYC bad-ass Jim Jarmusch, creating stories around boozy subcultural movements. From rockabillies to punks and working-class beatniks to the haute bourgeoisie, Kaurismäki has it all laced up in a stylised, socio-realism veneer, orbiting the genres to mix film noir with romantic comedy to dazzling effect. Well, that’s what I hear, at least, for I have never seen a Kaurismäki film.
Although it pains me to say it, I’ve just never got round to this formidable filmmaker’s work. As one of my “crimes against cinema” I’ve chosen ten films from his body of work to explore, observe and critique. With the updates coming thick and fast over the coming days, we kick off with his “Proleteriat Trilogy”.
#219: Shadows in Paradise (1986)
From Shadows in Paradise’s very opening shot of a dirty blue garage door, you know that this medley of films will be drenched in stale, working-class struggle. Garbage man Nikander (Matti Pellonpää) is a perpetual outsider; a lone soul glumly enduring a vacuous life in the dumps of Helsinki. A beacon of hope comes in a furtive love interest with the local mini-market cashier-girl Illona (Kati Outinen), but love here is no less capricious than betrayal. Kaurismäki sees the world as a succession of crappy homes and desolate roads, with people desperately seeking out compassion in any form. Such unwanted misanthropy and anguish becomes the product of brilliantly sharp absurdist comedy. In one scene, a rigid hotelier (played Kaurismäki himself) reels off a list of amenities and prices to the shelterless Illona only before fatally claiming that there’s no vacant rooms. Escaping the clutches of dullard work, the pair still have nowhere to go, and no way to get there.
Shadows In Paradise is a stoney faced comedy of underclass solidarity. The two sourpuss lovers are constantly awkward, taciturn characters. Defying all clichés, their unity is tragically real and therefore more affecting, even when the two sail off on a ferry to Estonia the result is grim, you will still be right there with them, hoping that they find a better future out of their subordinated status. It is truly a love story with a wristcutter’s pain at its heart – recycling familiar, rom-com conventions for something wholly depressing yet completely engrossing.
#219: Ariel (1988)
The prole hero this time around is a big-lug mineworker by the name of Taisto (Turo Pajala). After his father blows his brains out, Taisto slips on his dishevelled black suit, white socks and black RayBans and drives out of Lapland in his snowy white Cadillac for mainland Helsinki. If the grim realities of Shadows in Paradise are anything to go by, we know that the grass won’t be greener for Taisto, who, after starting another convenience-sake romance with single mother Irmeli (Susanna Haavisto) is thrown into jail after beating down a thief who tried to mug him. He is unjustly thrown into prison where he meets erratic cellmate Mikkonen (Matti Pellonpää once again putting in an astounding, muted performance); a new maestro who sets him straight on the wrong path in the Finnish underworld.
Ariel is much more menacing than Shadows in Paradise, with Kaurismäki’s regular cinematographer Timo Salminen using extended, still close-ups of prison bars and empty rooms to illustrate the inescapable isolation of these two hapless convicts.
A compelling blend of gritty realism and escapist fantasy – a polarity perhaps best emblematised by the juxtaposition of the film noir movie which Taisto watches on television, and the Finnish language take on the Wizard of Oz’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in the film’s closing moments. Not totally harmonious throughout, yet Kaurismäki’s ability to weave a complex narrative combining elements of prison-drama, crime caper, buddy comedy and fleeting romance, all in a measly seventy minute running time, is as mystifying as the enigmatic Taisto himself.
#219: The Match Factory Girl (1990)
Finishing up his working-class tripartite, Kaurismäki’s The Match Factory Girl is perhaps the bleakest of the three tragicomedies; a revenge movie about a subordinated woman going through an existential crisis as an underclass con in the mechanical Finnish society.
The film’s theme is stated, with characteristic bluntness, in the opening sequence, as a tree trunk is mechanically whittled down to the size of a matchstick – a brutal metaphor about the severity of life, and its inevitable demise.
Cementing her place as Kaurismäki’s muse, Kati Outinen stars again as the titular factory girl Iris. Swimming in mute disconsolation at her monotonous day job, by night she returns to a home-life even more catatonic, paying rent to her exploitative, stoical parents, eating a potato-heavy dinner in silence, ironing clothes and then straight to bed. With no social life, friends or personable qualities, she plucks up enough courage to break free and treat herself to a pretty dress, much to the dismay of her stepfather, who – seventeen minutes in to the picture – spurts the first diegetic piece of dialogue in the entire movie by calling his only daughter a whore. Shaken by parental disgust, Iris heads out to a club, where she meets the bearded man who shows her a good time.
Hardly a blossoming romance, Kaurismäki subverts the optimism when, in the morning after the night before, Iris’ night of passion is subverted to a night of convenience when she awakes to find a crisp Finnish mark bill on the bedside table. Confused and bewildered, she is nothing more than a prostitute to the man of her dreams, who later delivers the fatal line ‘Nothing could touch me less than your affection’. It’s enough of a tragedy to push Iris over the edge and seek vengeance on him, her parents, and anyone else who stands in her way.
As expected, Kaurismäki’s use of pop music in The Match Factory Girl superbly chronicles the practically silent film (there’s about twenty lines of spoken dialogue in the whole seventy minutes running time).
Moreso than any other of the working class characters in the series, Iris is the one you desperately long to see breakout of the acquiescent life she leads. The ensuing series of events, as compassionate as they are scabrous, provides not just a terrific, cathartic punchline to the story, but a significant political commentary on outmoded class structures in Finland and beyond.
Although the trilogy is far from perfect, all three represent a filmmaker who is unafraid to test audience’s patience with minimalism. Going further than french influence Robert Bresson, Kaurismäki’s worldview is distinctively humanistic but resolutely astringent, and watching his work can be akin to the alcohol which douses his stories: best served in moderation.
Next up on my Kaurismäki, “crimes against cinema” binge will be his 1989 music parody Leningrad Cowboys Go America.