Cinéma Laika and the Kaurismäki Effect

Aki Kaurismäki in Veljko Vidak’s Cinéma Laika (2023)

Last fall, Marta Bałaga traveled to Karkkila, a town of around nine thousand about an hour’s drive away from Helsinki, to report for Variety on Kino Laika, a movie theater that Aki Kaurismäki and the poet and writer Mika Lätti had opened in an old factory hall. “I have lived here for thirty-eight years, and I like it a lot,” Kaurismäki told Bałaga, “but we never had a cinema here before. To see movies, local people had to travel to the next town or even Helsinki. Not anymore. It’s wonderful to offer them this chance.”

With its interior decor overseen by Kaurismäki, a bar, and a dog-friendly policy—the theater’s namesake, Laika, was a stray from the streets of Moscow sent into orbit on Sputnik 2 in 1957—the theater launched its program with two films from 2021, Juho Kuosmanen’s Compartment No. 6, which won the Grand Prix in Cannes, and Cary Joji Fukunaga’s No Time to Die, featuring Daniel Craig’s fifth and final turn as James Bond. Kuosmanen sold more tickets.

“During Laika’s construction, cinema became the main and almost exclusive topic of local conversations,” filmmaker Veljko Vidak told Bałaga. “The entire town was breathing in the rhythm of its progress.” Vidak’s documentary on the project, Cinéma Laika, had premiered a few months earlier at the Midnight Sun Film Festival in Sodankylä, a town in northern Finland that’s even a bit smaller than Karkkila. The Match Factory picked up Cinéma Laika after it screened at Il Cinema Ritrovato, and on Thursday, Anthology Film Archives will host the New York premiere.

To celebrate, Anthology will also present five of Kaurismäki’s films, beginning with Ariel (1988) and The Match Factory Girl (1990), the final two films in his Proletariat Trilogy. In his 2008 overview of the trilogy for Slant, Fernando F. Croce proposed that, while Kaurismäki’s work has often been compared to Robert Bresson’s, it’s actually closer to Buster Keaton’s. “Humor and perseverance, no matter how ludicrous and out of place they may seem, keep despair at bay in Kaurismäki’s stories of sourpussed outsiders,” wrote Croce. “Life in these films is a matter of disappointment, frustration, and injustice, a perpetually overcast sky occasionally broken by the delicacy of a gesture or a good rockabilly song.”

“Shot in pearly black and white that registers every bit of grit and grime and translates it into a kind of classical serenity,” wrote Lucy Sante in 2014, La vie de bohème (1992) 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.”

Kaurismäki’s loose adaptation of Henri Murger’s Scènes de la vie de bohème, a collection of overlapping stories written and set in mid-nineteenth-century Paris, features André Wilms as the poet Marcel Marx, and in Le Havre (2011), Wilms plays a “former artist,” also named Marcel Marx. He’s an aging shoeshiner who flouts the law when he takes in a young refugee from Africa. Le Havre is “a portrait of a humble man doing his very best imitation of Christ,” wrote Michael Sicinski in 2012. “The world of Finland’s highest-profile auteur, not unlike that of Howard Hawks, is one of hard-won faith in basic decency, an unsentimental humanism that can even squeeze in space for love.”

Another refugee, a young Syrian man, is hidden from Finnish authorities by a middle-aged restaurateur in The Other Side of Hope (2017), Kaurismäki’s seventeenth fiction feature and “one of his most affecting,” as Girish Shambu wrote in 2018. “Despite the fact that each of his movies is singular and distinct, Aki World (as some have dubbed it) has a compelling coherence, in both content and form. The critic Jonathan Romney once discussed a phenomenon he called the ‘Kaurismäki effect’: encountering just one film by the director invariably leaves a viewer puzzled by his style and sensibility, but, upon seeing two or three, things gratifyingly begin to click and fall into place.”

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