(28/12/07) – Kaurismäki’s is a cinema of deadpan attitude, mixed here with a wistful breeziness (Drifting Clouds, 1996) and there with an irrecusable pessimism which sees the energy of his characters blocked at every turn by strictures of differing kinds (The Match Factory Girl, 1990). Kaurismäki characters speak little; get excited rarely; live in a world in which there’s always an opera being performed in a theatre nearby, the perfect place to hide. A festival favourite ever since he appeared on the scene, a handful of his films have been available on DVD before, but now Artificial Eye have put out four Kaurismäki boxed sets, loosely themed collections on which we can sate our collective longing for Finnish cinema.
Volume 3 of the collection brings together three films which are adaptations of existing texts, then adds one other of original inspiration. These are works which might seem marginal compared to Kaurismäki’s other achievements, but together it’s an intriguing medley. Setting out with his debut to film Dostoyevsky’s novel, a project Hitchcock famously told Truffaut he wouldn’t dare to attempt, Kaurismäki’s Crime and Punishment (1983) saw him deciding that ‘if I was going to fall, it should be from a great height. If it was only a few centimetres, who would care?’ (as he puts it in an interview which is part of the bonus Channel 4 documentary). Set in a Helsinki which rather resembles Wenders’ Hamburg (in The American Friend, 1977) – roads that seem to head back to the docklands; yellow and blue lights; mist; cranes – it’s a sullen piece which plays around with its source (reducing and merging the number of characters), the better to express the gradual accrual of guilt as it transfers from personal to official regimes of justice, the spirit also explored by Bresson in his Pickpocket (1959) and by Woody Allen in Crimes and Misdemeanours (1989).
Kaurismäki’s Rahikainen is no longer a student, he works in a slaughterhouse. Instead of essay and research, he cuts, chops, sprays, hacks, cleans. Transformations between source and re-setting run the risk of seeming facile – but Kaurismäki has the kind of wit which enables the filming of a new world which runs parallel to the text being reflected back on. Rahikainen doesn’t want to rid the world of evil; he has a specific vendetta, a hit-and-run driver who escaped a sentence in mind. Hamlet Goes Business (1987) pushes the metamorphosis of material further. In the accompanying documentary, a youthful Jonathan Ross presses the point, interviewer perched on a bicycle, the director sitting by a tree in front of a lake:
– What inspired you to use Shakespeare’s Hamlet as a starting point?
– A starting point for what?
– For your film. It’s not a verbatim rendering of Shakespeare, is it.
– Yes it is.
– No it isn’t.
– Yes it is.
– Nowhere in Shakespeare’s Hamlet does he go into the rubber duck business.
What the film seems to do is drift in and out of Shakespeare’s text, or at least a translation of the play into Finnish; one recognises lines rendered back into English on the subtitles. The black and white cinematography of Timo Salimem (part of the Kaurismäki company of collaborators) gives us a world of poisoned glasses of water and board-room deals, and forces it into the shape of noir rather than farce. Hamlet is a kind of Nixon-cool manipulator (listening in and taping conversations), his motivations as obliquely complicated as Rahikainen’s. It remains a consistently funny film (‘an unfunny comedy’ the director insists, but then he also advises people not to bother with his films because they’re ‘not good enough’), something which those Kaurismäki films with a funny concept from the start often deliberately out-run, splintering expectations.
Which brings us to Calamari Union (1985), a second feature which quickly followed Crime and Punishment, and which sees 17 men, all of them called Frank, apart from one who can speak English and therefore (?) has a Finnish name, Pekka, all set out on a multiple odyssey across Helsinki in search of a better life in the fabled Eira district. Apparently many of them are played by Finnish rock music luminaries. The thing puts one in mind of a multiplied version of Godard’s A Bout de Souffle (1960), an ensemble of exhausted people being nonchalant, stumbling into violence, and with cigarettes angled just so. Can the throwaway attitude still be bracing? Will lassitude triumph, and is an escape to Estonia a happy ending? ‘Hey Frank, what are you doing up there?’
The final film here is La Vie de Boheme (1992), an adaptation of the Durger novel which Puccini also adapted. Instead of amplifying the tragedy and the element of cruelty, the callousness towards Mimi, as Puccini did, Kaurismäki drolly creates a tale which is in the end more sympathetic, drawing the sting from a tear-stained opera to create a newly distinct verismo style. Rather than youthful bohemians, we get three middle-aged artists, depressed rather than ebullient, living in a vaguely 1960s Paris. For some reason it’s the details that remain with me: the stylized, artificial shadow of a train moving out from a platform; a shot of a painted portrait in the dark which feels like a Salimem signature; a priceless scene in which the composer of the bunch plays his latest composition for prepared piano and siren (‘You’re all under arrest’), and, earlier on, a particularly good joke about a fish with two heads.
The picture quality on these discs is good, with La Vie de Boheme particularly crisp, and the dynamic range allows us to appreciate the intricacy of the sound designs as well as the rock song interludes.
The Aki Kaurismäki Collection: Volume 3 DVD boxset is out now. Please follow the links provided to buy a copy and support Kamera by doing so.