Eclipse Series 12:
Aki Kaurismäki’s Proletariat Trilogy

Sep 23, 2008

SHADOWS IN PARADISE: ONE MAN’S TRASH

The cinema of Aki Kaurismäki has been tickling viewers for more than two decades without so much as cracking a smile. With their rotating casts of sourpuss Finns and their stringent, often immobile compositions, his films would seem the least likely candidates for laughs, yet by some cinematic alchemy Kaurismäki’s black-comic precision has made him one of the most warmly embraced filmmakers on the international art-house scene. His characters, living on the fringes of society, beset by economic woes and trapped in workaday monotony, are lovable in their loserdom, human and familiar even at their most forbidding. None of Kaurismäki’s films better express his talent for finding humor in desperation than those that have come to be known as his “Proletariat Trilogy,” elegantly shot and edited tales of chronic working-class dissatisfaction.

On the larger film scene, Kaurismäki might himself be considered something of an outcast; despite an ardent following that began to form around his festival-circuit surge in the late eighties, and the undeniable influence his deadpan aesthetic has had on American independent film, he remains something of a quarantined figure, trapped in his nation’s wintry nowheresville along with his soulful characters. And that’s probably okay with him. In 2001, when asked how his films fit into contemporary world cinema, he responded, “A small globe has no importance. It’s the same story: people try to survive in the world where they were born.” At their core, that is what all his films are about, survival in a very specific place, the nation of his birth, among those excluded from the fruits of capitalism.

Despite a disdain for Hollywood and recent American foreign policy (he has declined Oscar nominations and U.S. festival invitations to protest the Iraq War), Kaurismäki has shown a keen adeptness at ingesting American genres, and then slyly upending them. Shadows in Paradise (1986), his third feature and the first of the trilogy, could be considered his rendition of a romantic comedy—although one that opens with an image of a blank wall. Soon enough that wall is revealed to be a garage door, through which enters a procession of less than gregarious garbagemen. Scenes of physical labor eventually give way to the story of a charmingly cheerless love affair that serves as an unexpected lifeboat for its down-and-out principals. The romance between direct but directionless trash collector Nikander (Kaurismäki’s close friend and collaborator Matti Pellonpää, who died in 1995) and cynical supermarket checkout girl Ilona (Kati Outinen, in her Kaurismäki debut), played out amid the gutted streetscapes and sparse,  ramshackle apartments of Helsinki’s less fortunate areas, is hopelessly tentative, depicted as a series of minute gestures, timid and lovely.

The amusing mix of pessimism and possibility these people feel at work (“I’m not going to die behind the wheel,” says a colleague; “Then where?” asks Nikander; the reply: “Behind a desk”) is mirrored in their relationships, and Kaurismäki allows Nikander and Ilona a final triumph of sorts. Yet even these moments of joy and release are mired in a sardonic, Nordic existentialism. As Kaurismäki would continue to express, escape is achievable, but at a price.

 

ARIEL: ALL WORKED UP

Immediately after Shadows in Paradise, Aki Kaurismäki turned to adapting a classic text (as he had done with his 1983 debut feature, Crime and Punishment), bringing a tinge of noir to Shakespeare with his black-and-white corporate-crime satire Hamlet Goes Business (1987). For his next project, however, the director announced that he would make a sequel to Shadows in Paradise, which had been a success, winning the Jussi award (the Finnish equivalent of the Oscar) for best film. Though ultimately this “sequel” would retain none of the characters from the earlier film, the result, Ariel (1988), recalls Shadows in Paradise in its whimsical central relationship, its unerring focus on folks eking out a living, and its portrait of the desperate measures they’ll take to escape their constricted lives.

In a sense, the Finnish director was giving classic neorealism a twist. But in Kaurismäki’s hands, the quest for secure work that provided the drama for De Sica’s Shoeshine and Bicycle Thieves becomes fleet, droll, if equally compassionate, comedy. Like Shadows in Paradise, Ariel begins with a still frame into which workers march—this time, it’s a group of coal miners on demolition duty, ascending a staircase. With his mine shut down, Taisto (Turo Pajala) accepts some final words of wisdom and the gift of a used Cadillac convertible from his father and co-worker, who then shoots himself, and leaves his Lapland home for Helsinki, with the vague hope of something better. Luck would have it differently, however, and Taisto finds himself a small fish in a big, muddy pond.

Yet Kaurismäki gives Taisto a saving grace, an amusingly blank love interest, divorced single mom Irmeli (Susanna Haavisto). Taisto and Irmeli are at opposite ends of the employment spectrum: while the former can’t maintain a job, the latter is living off a hilariously endless series of them, from meter maid to housekeeper to bank guard. Kaurismäki himself comes from a working-class family and has his own comically long list of trades from his youth—forty in all, he claims, including port storeman, maintenance worker, and dishwasher, not to mention his eventual work as a film critic and screenwriter—making the plights of Taisto and Irmeli more than a little autobiographical.

As with Shadows in Paradise, Kaurismäki directs Ariel with a mix of austerity and warmth that results in an almost inexplicable poignancy and frankness, despite its characters’ emotional reticence. When Ariel takes a left turn into noir territory, the film never breaks a sweat, maintaining its deadpan charm even amid shooting deaths and prison escapes. The film’s elegant combination of visual idiosyncrasy (a late-film image of the convertible’s top slowly closing over a dead body is both humorous and harrowing) and reliable narrative tropes helped make it a breakthrough for its director; it eventually won festival and critics’ awards in Moscow and the United States. Ariel proved Kaurismäki’s surprisingly translatable pop sensibility. Its soundtrack of American standards with a twist (“Over the Rainbow” in Finnish) and indigenous music (Finnish tango) was both exotic and familiar, as was its story of human striving.


THE MATCH FACTORY GIRL: A HARD DAY’S NIGHT

The final flights that marked the closing moments of Shadows in Paradise and Ariel, with their crisply composed shots of ships sailing off into the unknown, were a luxury that the protagonist of the final film of Aki Kaurismäki’s “Proletariat Trilogy” could not afford. The Match Factory Girl (1990) is easily the darkest of the three, yet it is still thematically tied to the others. Though he had not set out to make a trilogy, when Kaurismäki began planning to shoot The Match Factory Girl, he proclaimed it, along with the earlier two, as “dedicated to the memory of Finnish reality.” A typically sardonic, outsider’s pronouncement, but also a key to unlocking the oddly nostalgic, wistful strain throughout these films, in which financially unstable people struggle—amusingly, hopelessly—to get by in a world that no longer seems to have use for them.

The opening sequence of The Match Factory Girl brilliantly illustrates this notion of working-class superfluousness. In a series of short, terse shots, a machine chugs along at a swift pace, breaking down tree logs into packets of matches with graceful, Kubrickian efficiency. Finally, we see a human, Iris (Kati Outinen), although she has the mien of an automaton, checking the boxes as they are conveyed by. Iris’s obsolescence is reiterated in her drab home life, where her mother and stepfather only acknowledge her to tear her down, and in her stabs at dating, which mostly consist of not being asked to dance at a local nightclub. Kaurismäki details all of this with his usual acerbic spareness, yet here he takes his style to its unyielding, bitter end. There is indeed dark humor in The Match Factory Girl, but one must nearly squint at the screen to see it.

The film grows increasingly grim as it inexorably trudges along to its conclusion, but in its ultimate misery it finds both catharsis and gallows humor. If Shadows in Paradise and Ariel deconstructed the romantic comedy and film noir, respectively, then The Match Factory Girl could be considered Kaurismäki’s maddeningly subdued version of the revenge melodrama, casting Outinen’s dour nobody, with her receding chin and prominent upper lip, as a sort of ridiculous, minimalist Charles Bronson. When she metes out her own brand of justice to those who have wronged her, Kaurismäki frames her actions dispassionately, as though they are the natural outgrowth of a repressive social system, one in which extermination is a transaction as bloodless as the money exchanges he frequently films in pointed close-up.

The film never succumbs to total darkness, however: dabs of ironic color stand out amid the gray-toned fatalism, from the pink flowery dress Iris covets to the glass of bright orange soda she orders in the bar. These moments of visual incongruousness exemplify Kaurismäki’s awkward charm, a madcap miserabilism that has marked all his subsequent successes, from Drifting Clouds (1996) to the Academy Award–nominated The Man Without a Past (2003). His influence can be felt in the works of, among others, Jim Jarmusch and Wes Anderson. As eclipsed as Kaurismäki might remain to most filmgoers, he’s left a subtle but unmistakable imprint on contemporary cinema.

Michael Koresky is staff writer at the Criterion Collection.