Aki Kaurismaki

For those living near Chicago (I’m not sure how many of us that includes), Facets is presenting an almost-complete retrospective of Aki Kaurismaki, starting this Friday. Through the gracious help of a friend, I was able to watch a number of his films on video. Obviously not the best way to watch Kaurismaki’s work, but even the videos were impressive. I wrote up a review for a local paper and thought I’d just post it here, in the hopes of provoking some discussion. I’m especially interested in what people think of Kaurismaki’s other movies, such as Juha, Shadows in Paradise, and I Hired a Contract Killer. –J Robert

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By J Robert Parks

Though the Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki has been something of an underground hero in cinephile circles, he had trouble breaking out of the festival circuit until his latest film Man without a Past won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival. Despite that film’s warm reception in America, few of his movies have been made available on video, making it difficult for moviegoers to catch up with a man who’s been consistently making films for over 20 years. So, it’s a joy to see that Facets Multimedia has programmed a full retrospective of Kaurismaki’s work. It begins this Friday (Aug. 15) and continues through Sun., Aug. 24.

The real find of the program is the 1996 feature Drifting Clouds. It stars Kaurismaki’s muse Kati Outinen (Man without a Past) as a headwaiter at an elegant restaurant. When the restaurant is bought out by a dubious organization called The Chain, she finds herself without a job. Even worse, her loving husband Lauri (Kari Vaananen) has also lost his. In his case, the layoffs are decided by drawing cards, and Lauri picks the unlucky three of clubs. The couple, whose affection for each other is genuine and deeply moving (think Marge and Wade Gunderson in Fargo, but more so), struggle to find work. He gets a job driving a bus but is then rejected when he can’t pass the physical. She takes employment at a seedy diner where she works as both waitress and cook, that is until the place is shut down for tax evasion. Things look bleak until they get the idea of starting a new restaurant. What follows is simply magical.

The great thing about Drifting Clouds is that it encapsulates all of Kaurismaki’s motifs in one stunning film. His use of music is unparalleled. While most contemporary movies feature snippets of overly-familiar songs to manipulate an audience’s emotion, Kaurismaki’s musical choices serve to amplify the already-existing emotion or, even better, provide a counterpoint to it. In The Match Factory Girl (more on that below), the main character finds herself at a low point and turns on the radio for solace. On comes “Cadillac” by the European group The Renegades, a blistering mid-’60s tune reminiscent of Kaurismaki’s beloved late-’50s American rock-n-roll. The contrast between the tune’s driving beat and the character’s despair is palpable. Furthermore, Kaurismaki rarely uses just a verse or chorus of a song. He plays the entire thing, cutting between the performer (if it’s live) and the audience who’s listening. This has the effect of deepening our connection with both the music and, more importantly, with the characters. In Drifting Clouds, the songs that are played at the restaurant’s final night are haunting, and Kaurismaki makes it even more so by switching between the restaurant’s patrons who are blithely dancing and the restaurant’s stunned employees.

This relates to another persistent theme in Kaurismaki’s work: the working class and its victimization at the hand of indiscriminate capitalism. In Hamlet Goes Business, the Shakespeare tragedy is transformed into a banal business deal, one in which the family has decided to abandon its shipyard in exchange for a rubber duck factory. The Match Factory Girl is more subtle. It opens with a long series of factory shots, none of which features even a single person. Only at the end of the segment do we see the titular character, who’s staring at a conveyor belt as boxes of finished matches roll by. What follows is a brief look at a woman desperately trying to get off the conveyor belt of her life. She (another amazing performance from Kati Outinen) lives with her mother and stepfather, and works at the factory during the day. At night, she gets dressed up and goes to a dance club, hoping to find a man. No such luck as we witness in one heartbreaking scene. And when she buys a new dress and puts on flashier makeup, she’s mistaken for a prostitute. Things don’t get any better after that. But in a surprise, this wallflower decides not to take it any more, and her solution is both audacious and strangely funny.

Much has been made of Kaurismaki’s deadpan humor, but its importance cannot be overstated. For starters, it takes stories that might be far too bleak and leavens them with enough laughs to keep us interested. Furthermore, his narratives are full of outcasts struggling with a society that rejects them, and his humor focuses on how those characters overcome their obstacles. In the fun road trip flick Leningrad Cowboys Go America, a Siberian folk band arrives in New York hoping for success. Unfortunately, the bassist has died practicing. He froze to death in the tundra. Undaunted, the band brings his coffin to America, planning on “showing” him the sights. This functions as a running joke but is also transformed in the movie’s final scene into something much richer. In Ariel, an early Kaurismaki that feels like an early film, a man drives a beautiful white Cadillac through the snows of Finland. With the top down. The fact that anyone would have a convertible in Finland is itself a joke, but even better that he can’t put the top up. Not until the movie’s final scenes when a wonderful visual gag takes place (“I wonder what this button does”).

Watching several Kaurismaki movies in a row, I had the pleasure of growing accustomed to Aki’s fascinating universe: the jukebox that appears in every movie, the bit character actors who reappear from film to film in various roles, the strong female characters, and the theme of dreams vs. reality. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Timo Salminen, Aki’s ever-present and brilliant cinematographer. Salminen’s use of slanting shadows in the black-and-white Hamlet Goes Business is fantastic, but his crowning achievement is the color palette he achieves in Drifting Clouds. It is simply one of the most gorgeous films I’ve seen in a long time.

And maybe this is a good place to end. It’s unfortunate that Facets has to stuff fourteen movies (each one shown twice) into just ten days. Only the most diehard fan will be able to attend even half of those. I encourage everyone, however, to catch both Drifting Clouds and The Match Factory Girl (both play on Sun., Aug. 17 & Mon., Aug. 18). Those are a great introduction to one of Europe’s most important filmmakers. For a full schedule, check out the Facets website at www.facets.org.