La vie de bohème (1992), Aki Kaurismäki’s ninth feature, was at least the fourteenth filmed adaptation of Henri Murger’s episodic 1848 semi-novel, which is most famous for its operatic adaptation by Giacomo Puccini. The details of its setting and plot have been worn transparent from passing through so many hands over so many years: the garrets, the quest for inspiration, the pawning of possessions, the commodity value of the black frock coat, the knell that sounds as a slight tubercular cough. “Starving artists” has become a trade name for hucksters selling couch art from China in New Jersey motel conference rooms. Murger’s book has both endured and faded because of its fervent, wholehearted, mulishly determined sentimentality. You’d imagine, reasonably enough, that any adaptation made in the last quarter century would be either indigestibly saccharine or toe-curlingly cynical.
But that would be to reckon without the singular worldview that is Kaurismäki’s. In his movies, innocence is a moral decision that can be arrived at only after passing through many trials. He fully subscribes to his characters, from their largest ambitions to their smallest crotchets. His movies are often hilarious, but their humor is earned by grief. We don’t laugh at anyone’s expense; we laugh because we’ve been there. All of this permits him to treat Murger’s story in a completely straightforward fashion, without irony or superciliousness—or nostalgia, since his film takes place, somehow, in both the present and the past. Although Kaurismäki originally intended to shoot the picture in his hometown of Helsinki, he came to realize that it could be made only in Paris. So he shot it in the southern suburb of Malakoff, which was both cheaper and more authentically run-down (those of Murger’s original locations that weren’t demolished by Baron Haussmann in the nineteenth century were gutted by André Malraux in the 1960s). The production is as bare-bones as the characters’ lives; a projected silhouette of a train substitutes for an expensive setup at a station. The characters may be eating and sleeping two hundred years ago—or three hundred; the props are so basic they may as well be eternal—but they go to the café-tabac and the nightclub in 1992, because those are just down the street.
Fervent, inspired, but somewhat impractical dedication is central to Kaurismäki’s idea of bohemia, a concept that probably got going among impoverished art students in Paris at the very beginning of the nineteenth century (before then, the term encompassed, according to Karl Marx, “vagabonds, cashiered soldiers, ex-cons, swindlers, mountebanks, pickpockets, knife-grinders, tinkers, beggars”) but that Murger put on the map forty years later. From his perch at the Café Momus, near the Louvre, Murger, a working-class belletrist with no money and many afflictions—purpura gave him a “macabre” complexion, his eyes watered incessantly—wrote stories about idealized versions of his friends, which ran in a newspaper called Le Corsaire-Satan (Baudelaire was another contributor, although not a friend). When the stories were assembled into Scènes de la vie de bohème, it captured the imagination of the world. Murger’s sentimental linking of misery and glory suddenly made many people aspire to glorious misery. Some of them were undoubtedly poseurs and trend followers, but there were many like Kaurismäki’s characters: martyrs and anchorites of the faith of art.
The film’s story is distilled from but faithful to the Murger; Kaurismäki avoids Murger’s bathos merely by playing things straight and with his trademark deadpan. It involves three friends: the lyric poet Marcel Marx (André Wilms), the Albanian painter Rodolfo (Matti Pellonpää), and the Irish composer Schaunard (Kari Väänänen). Marcel is evicted from his garret in favor of Schaunard, but he continues to live there anyway. Rodolfo makes hopeless naive paintings to no effect, until he meets an eccentric collector (Jean-Pierre Léaud). Marcel’s epic is similarly rejected, but then a publisher (Samuel Fuller) hires him as the editor of a fashion magazine, The Sash of Iris. And Schaunard’s compositions are spat upon, but he doesn’t seem to care, lustily bashing away at musique concrète that is equal parts Dada and vaudeville. All three find romantic partners, but it is Rodolfo who truly falls in love, with Mimi (Evelyne Didi), who is so sad-eyed that she alone in the cast is sometimes permitted to smile. Rodolfo is deported but then sneaks back to France; he loses Mimi to the sort of rich vagrant who is always taking girlfriends away; all three artists become reacquainted with starvation. Once they have scraped together enough for an All Saints’ Day meal, the festivities are interrupted by Mimi’s return. She has a slight cough and is running a temperature.
Kaurismäki catches a tone of matter-of-fact fatalism that is probably much closer to that of the real bohemians than Murger’s impossibly pure exemplars. It allows a realistic view of those appalling existences, such as that of the writer Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, who was so poor he had neither paper nor table, so that he wrote on cigarette papers or wrappers fished from the trash while lying on his stomach on the floor, or that, somewhat later, of Francis Carco, who climbed lampposts to heat his tea on the gas jet and once, in a restaurant, dribbled gravy on the slate on which his bill was written, then called over the house dog to lick it clean—a detail Kaurismäki might conceivably have used. The young Picasso, for that matter, at one point did not own a pair of shoes, and had to borrow some whenever he wanted to leave his garret. Such stories have circulated primarily about people who later made good, of course; many others took theirs to the grave, which is what you tend to imagine would be the case for Marcel, Rodolfo, and Schaunard.
I don’t know a word of Finnish, but I’m assured that the language in Kaurismäki’s other pictures is of a piece with the French spoken in this one: formal, correct, literary in such a pure if antique way that it defeats mildew. It is probably how Murger’s people spoke in real life. Pellonpää and Väänänen, who didn’t speak a syllable of French, learned their lines phonetically (and if it is marginally possible to imagine Rodolfo as Albanian, the idea of Schaunard being Irish is a gag unto itself), but Wilms, a distinguished French stage actor who can infuse lines bordering on fustian with freshness and urgency, sets the verbal tone for the picture. (Note that in Kaurismäki’s 2011 Le Havre, a very different kind of movie, Wilms again plays a character named Marcel Marx, a “former artist” who speaks much the same way.) There is, in any case, not much more excess dialogue than in any of Kaurismäki’s pictures.
Wilms’s Marcel has such elevated thoughts that he rarely seems more than mildly perturbed in any circumstance. Rather than raising his voice or loosening his syntax when he is agitated, he just speaks a bit faster, this despite the many indignities to which he is subjected. When we first meet him, he is trash picking; he falls into the bins and cuts his upper lip. Disfiguring bandage in place, he repairs to a bar where he is served what he can afford: a thimble-sized glass of wine. (There actually was such a portion in nineteenth-century Paris: a large glass was a monsieur, a small one was a mademoiselle, and a glass barely big enough for an entire gulp was a misérable.) Whether he is temporarily riding high—hubristically serializing his interminable verse drama in the fashion magazine—or barely concealing his indigence, he maintains an air of slightly harried dignity, as if he were the leader of a parliamentary faction.
Väänänen’s Schaunard looks like a very large alley cat, or a particularly disreputable hippie who has decided to upgrade his wardrobe in order to visit the disco, while neglecting his slimy hair and the growth of crabgrass on his face. Despite displaying no visible means of support, he does not appear to be short of cash. He is, however, usually looking out for number one; when he treats his friends to dinner, he produces a sausage baguette, cutting half of it into portions for Marcel, Rodolfo, Mimi, and Marcel’s secretary-cum-paramour Musette, then eats the other half himself. At one point, he treats himself to a car, a three-wheeled micro-coupe that looks a bit like a duck (it appears to be a Reliant Robin), which itself becomes a character. The charge of one emotionally fraught scene is conveyed by the car, with the three friends clustered inside, beating its windshield wipers to the rhythm of Little Willie John’s “Leave My Kitten Alone.”
Pellonpää’s Rodolfo is, on the other hand, doglike—partly a matter of his long, center-parted hair, his walrus mustache, and his doleful eyes combining to give the impression of a stately but wounded hound. Until his untimely death in 1995, Pellonpää was Kaurismäki’s most frequent male lead, perhaps something of an alter ego. He played many different sorts of characters but endowed all of them with the gravity he displays here, which fittingly and despite the obvious differences has something akin to Buster Keaton’s. His composure, always suggesting hidden pain, makes him an ideal subject for Kuleshov’s famous montage experiment—the same expression, depending on what he is looking at, can make him appear frightened, insulted, mortified, hungry, or love-struck.
One departure from Murger’s text is the character of Mimi, who in the book is initially young and wild, a party girl. As played by Didi, also a French stage actor of many years’ standing, she is not only more mature but, from her first appearance, a mask of tragedy. And this remains the case whether she is being romanced by Rodolfo or working behind the counter of the tabac or appearing on the arm of the lounge lizard Francis (Jean-Paul Wenzel). But it all works nevertheless—she seems a cognate of the tragic voice of Damia, the great chanteuse whose song “Chantez pour moi, violons” accompanies the opening credits. She can articulate, with a glance, all the emotions that the men repress or dissimulate or sidestep.
It wouldn’t be a Kaurismäki picture without a wild rockabilly band (the aptly named Fake Trashmen, performing a particularly unhinged variation on “Surfin’ Bird”), and it wouldn’t be a Kaurismäki picture without an eloquent and significant dog. I think it’s safe to say that no director in the entire history of motion pictures has understood and showcased dogs as effectively as he does. Dogs appear in nearly all of his films, and they are never there for merely decorative purposes. The Laika here, playing the role of Baudelaire, is not the same Laika as in Le Havre, but they are presumably related, since the latter, the current Kaurismäki family dog, is described as a “fifth-generation canine actress in a line of dogs” that have appeared in many of his pictures. The Laika here, with her soulful demeanor and her silken black Belgian shepherd looks, is perfectly cast as the long-suffering bohemian conscript.
Shot in pearly black and white that registers every bit of grit and grime and translates it into a kind of classical serenity, La vie de bohème is an exemplary Kaurismäki movie, one of his best pictures and of a piece with the balance of his consistently rich and richly consistent oeuvre. It is concerned with the struggle for love and wherewithal, that is, and it treasures people for their failings as much as their strengths. It is sad and funny, sometimes in the same instant. It is calm and intermittently manic, drunken and cold sober, romantic and realistic. It brims over with soul. It stands as a rebuke to the many kinds of imposture that try to pass themselves off as movies in the multiplex era. It is radically and unapologetically human.
Luc Sante’s books include Low Life and Kill All Your Darlings.