Adapting La vie de bohème
Aki Kaurismäki first read Henri Murger’s Scènes de la vie de bohème in 1976. The highly influential 1851 book—an episodic novel about a group of starving artists that also inspired Puccini’s 1896 opera La bohème—captured the Finnish filmmaker’s imagination and, he said in a 1992 interview, he “immediately decided to make a film adaptation of it.” Originally, Kaurismäki was going to shoot the project in Helsinki, but, citing Murger’s statement in his introduction to the book that “Bohemia only exists and is only possible in Paris,” he decided to wait until the day he could film in France. Sixteen years after hatching the plan, having achieved international success by way of such brilliantly droll films as Shadows in Paradise, Leningrad Cowboys Go America, and The Match Factory Girl, Kaurismäki realized this dream, shooting his adaptation, La vie de bohème, in the Paris suburb of Malakoff because, he said, “The spirit of old Paris is mostly in the suburbs.”
Kaurismäki, who had experience adapting classics to the screen (see Crime and Punishment and Hamlet Goes Business), updated Murger’s source material to the present day—a choice that demonstrates how timeless Murger’s subject matter is. And even though La vie de bohème is a dry, funny, distinctly Kaurismäkian film, the director retains the spirit and flavor of Murger’s more melodramatic original text— all of which has been translated and made available by Project Gutenberg. Below, we present both a passage from the first chapter of the novel, in which we meet the hapless protagonist, and the corresponding scene from Kaurismäki’s film. It’s a delightful bit of comic desperation and a perfect synthesis of the two artists’ styles, as well as an example of Kaurismäki’s affection for and faithfulness to the material he was adapting— he even retains the date and time of day from the original.
From Scènes de la vie de bohème, Chapter One:
Having stuffed into the cellar-like pockets of his overcoat all the articles they would hold, Schaunard tied up some linen in a handkerchief, and took an affectionate farewell of his home. While crossing the court, he was suddenly stopped by the porter, who seemed to be on the watch for him.
“Hallo! Monsieur Schaunard,” cried he, blocking up the artist’s way, “don’t you remember that this is the eighth of April?”
“Eight and eight make sixteen just / Put down six and carry one,” hummed Schaunard. “I don’t remember anything else.”
“You are a little behindhand then with your moving,” said the porter; “it is half past eleven, and the new tenant to whom your room has been let may come any minute. You must make haste.”
“Let me pass, then,” replied Schaunard; “I am going after a cart.”
“No doubt, but before moving there is a little formality to be gone through. I have orders not to let you take away a hair unless you pay the three quarters due. Are you ready?”
“Why, of course,” said Schaunard, making a step forward.
“Well, come into my lodge, then, and I will give you your receipt.”
“I shall take it when I come back.”
“But why not at once?” persisted the porter.
“I am going to a money changer’s. I have no change.”
“Ah, you are going to get change!” replied the other, not at all at his ease. “Then I will take care of that little parcel under your arm, which might be in your way.”
“Monsieur Porter,” exclaimed the artist, with a dignified air, “you mistrust me, perhaps! Do you think I am carrying away my furniture in a handkerchief?”
“Excuse me,” answered the porter, dropping his tone a little, “but such are my orders. Monsieur Bernard has expressly charged me not to let you take away a hair before you have paid.”
“But look, will you?” said Schaunard, opening his bundle, “these are not hairs, they are shirts, and I am taking them to my washerwoman, who lives next door to the money changer’s twenty steps off.”
“That alters the case,” said the porter, after he had examined the contents of the bundle. “Would it be impolite, Monsieur Schaunard, to inquire your new address?”
“Rue de Rivoli!” replied the artist, and having once got outside the gate, he made off as fast as possible.