Five films into my Aki Kaurismäki binge, I’m starting to notice some irrevocable patterns throughout the Finnish filmmaker’s work. The tragicomic characters, meandering non-stories, beautifully constructed soundtracks and a perplexing, but on the most part rewarding melange of brutal honesty and bathos. La Vie de Bohème is nothing new in this respect, but it is still a captivating, melancholic film; using the romantic connotations of artistry to devastatingly bleak, sardonically funny effect.
Loosely adapted from the autobiographical short stories of Henri Murger, this elegantly black and white film tells the romanticised story of three struggling artists ruffing it in down and out Paris. There’s Marcel (André Wilms) a testy writer who is disgusted when a publisher suggests an edit of his 21-act play, and Schaunard (Kari Väänänen), a composer whose musical impulses sees him whacking on piano keys and creating all sorts of vociferous sounds and finally Rodolpho (Matti Pellonpää), an Albanian painter hiding in the shadows from the immigration authorities, with his beloved tuberculosis suffering girlfriend Mimi (Evelyne Didi) at his side..Although they are all struggling through the Bohemian dream, the artistes have no concerns more immediate than finding their next meal ticket, saloon drink or next pay packet.
With a rich, heavily saturated lighting design, and the thrifty, effective cinematography from familiar lensman Timo Salminen, La Vie de Bohème resembles something familiarly French; similar to Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. As if by coincidence, that film’s young star Jean-Pierre Léaud all grown up and performing here as a bourgeoise art collector, who finally gives Rodolpho his big break.
There’s also a surrealist, David Lynchian humour to the film, with the Eraserhead chicken being replaced by a two-headed fish which Marcel and Rodolpho willingly feast on, and a dialogue that identifies a piano as a violin and a self-portrait of the moustached Rodolpho as one of his mother, apparently.
Whilst The Match Factory Girl was virtually wordless, La Vie de Bohème is built on a vernacular pretence. With dialogue written in pidgin French, the artists pontificate about philosophy and literature all the while whilst unsure of where there’ll be scoring their next meal. The result is heartbreaking and hilarious simultaneously, with Kaurismäki managing to satirise his oafish protagonists and valorise them in the same scene.
As his longest film to date, the hundred minutes of La Vie de Bohème never outstays its welcome. A poignant and uplifting portrait heralding the ups and downs of the artiste lifestyle, from one of the finest European cinema has to offer.
As a total newbie to Kaurismäki, check out my other reviews of this great man’s work, and let me know what other films I should let my senses explore.