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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Aki Kaurismäki | La Vie de Bohème (The Bohemian Life) and Kauas pilvet karkaavat (Drifting Clouds)

two films by aki kaurismäki














the influence of blue on art
by Douglas Messerli
Aki Kaurismäki (screenplay, based on the fiction by Henri Murger), Aki Kaurismäki (director)
La Vie de Bohème (The Bohemian Life) / 1992

Aki Kaurismäki's La Vie de Bohème has often been described by critics as a rather dour version of the Henri Murger novel which, in turn, inspired Puccini's La Bohème. And I suppose, given the doeful looks of Matti Pellonpää, playing this film's Rodolfo, the lean grizzled appearance of André Wilms as Marcel, and the long-haired, chain-smoking  down-and-out composer Schau-nard (Kari Väänänen) that one might be tempted to imagine that the film's characters have none of the joie de vie of the original.

      Although he first wanted to film in Helsinki,  Kaurismäki soon became convinced that there was no other place in which La Vie de Bohème could exist but in Paris. The streets in this "city of light," however, seem so deserted and covered with debris that it might as well have been shot in a Helsinki suburb. Although the Eiffel Tower appears in a couple of scenes, it has none of the glitter—this is, after all, a gritty black and white work—that the lacy iron symbol has in other films. Although seasons come and go, this La Vie de Bohème is played in an eternal winter.  Kaurismäki's Paris, in short, is a desolate spot.

     And why wouldn't it be if you had your 21-act play was rejected simply because you had refused to cut even a semicolon? Or if you composed music—vaguely influenced by the what the composer suggests is the effect of "blue on art" and your newest sonata is entitled Traffic Jam—to which even your friends cannot not bear to listen? Or, as in Rodolfo's case, if you were an Albanian in Paris without any legal papers? The moment Rodolfo meets his Mimi (Evelyne Didi) he is arrested and sent back to Albania. And, as in the original, none of them have  money to pay the rent!

     Yet it is the Murger's and Puccini's versions, as romantic as they are, that might truly be described as bleak. These three untalented artists somehow get along quite amusingly, while their stone-faced commentaries spoken in French by Finnish actors, making the lines seem even more "artificial," often result in a laughter that does not come in roars but through continuous chortles from the audience.

      Despite their down-and-out lives, they do reap some financial windfalls. Marcel is hired by a short-fused publisher (played by American director Sam Fuller) to edit his magazine, Girdle of Eris. Rodolfo is commissioned to do a portrait by a wealthy man (Jean-Pierre Leaud). But the moment that any money enters their hands, they quickly share it, buying up provisions, liquor, and other consumer  goods—even a ridiculous Mathis, a tri-care manufactured in France in 1946. When they have money, their girls, Musette and Mimi, share their lives; when Rodolfo is deported and Marcel fired for printing his terrible play in the magazine, the women predictably disappear from their sides. Although Mimi may be tubercular, Kaurismäki does not at all sentimentalize her, and she rarely coughs. She is simply another poor victim of the street, forced at times to wander on snowy nights. When fired from his job, Marcel summarizes one of the themes of this film and what might characterize several of Kaurismäki's somewhat eccentric achievements: "We make child's play of it all misfortunes. We don't get depressed."

     When Rudolfo sneaks back into France, Mimi drops her current boyfriend, and the men each contribute a few coins in order to buy enough food for a moderate feast. The artist sells what is left of his paintings to his patron. As Mimi grows ill, the men gather about her bed, but she sends them off, dying in an almost uneventful manner, the way most of us draw our last breath.

       Kaurismäki's Bohemians are the true artists, often so untalented that they cannot sell or share their work, but so impassioned about their art, or just stubbornly determined to create it, that they survive. They are fools, clearly, clowns in a society that seldom has room for their existence or a desire for what they might produce. It is not just Schaunard's music, but their entire lives that might be said to demonstrate "The Influence of Blue on Art."

    
Los Angeles, December 10, 2011


work
by Douglas Messerli

Aki Kaurismäki (writer and director) Kauas pilvet karkaavat (Drifting Clouds) / 1996

The first of what is described as Kaurismäki's Finland trio of films—also sometimes dubbed the "losers" trilogy—Drifting Clouds is a kind of dark comedy that should resonate with today's American audiences. Despite the economic strength of the Finnish economy through the 1980s, a few years before this film northern Finland had suffered a severe economic depression not unlike that facing the US over the past couple of years.

Ilona Koponen (Kaati Outinen), a hard-working and extremely conscientious maître d' at a once elegant and rather expensive restaurant, Dubrovnik, now spends less time with the decreasing number of customers than she does with calming down the cook, who, from time to time, imbibes in hidden alcohol which, when taken away from him, sends him into a violent frenzy. Yet it is clear from her calm and efficient-looking demeanor that she is proud of her job, and basically happy with her life, each night after work, traveling by tram to her home, with her husband who is the tram's driver.

     Lauri (Kari Väänänen), her husband, is an equally pleasant fellow who proudly announces to her, upon their return home, that he has purchased a new television set on credit. Ilona, obviously the more practical of the two, is a bit nervous with the purchase, particularly since they have already recently purchased a couch; but since both have jobs, things look good for the future.

     Bleak fate is often a subject in Kaurismäki's films, yet no one could imagine what faces this happy couple the next day. Arriving at work, Lauri's boss reports that three men must be cut from the payroll, and, as they draw cards to see who goes, it is clear that Lauri's card contains the lowest number. Meanwhile, Ilona and the staff are informed by the owner of the restaurant that the Dubrovnik has been sold to a chain, who will be bringing in their own employees.

     Both good citizens immediately attempt to find other jobs, refusing to even go on unemployment. Lauri is offered a job as a bus driver, but disastrously fails the medical examination: he is deaf in one ear, requiring him to give up his driver's license.

     Ilona tries several other restaurants but is quickly rejected by most (there are dozens of people waiting for jobs), one cold hearted restaurateur going so far to say "To be honest, you're beginning to be too old." Ilona replies: "I'm 36," to which he answers: "You can pass away at any time." Ilona even applies as a dishwater, but is told she has no experience, reiterating the kind of dark comic wit characteristic of Kaurismäki's films.

     Lauri begins to drink and, from time to time, so does Ilona. Life has lost all of its beautiful luster. Yet we know from the rich hues of the director's shots that there must still be some hope. Eventually Ilona, paying for the recommendation, finds a job in a cheap and decaying bar/restaurant which she attempts to improve by introducing some small decorations and pretending to take orders as a waitress before running into the kitchen to serve through the window as if the place were somehow a legitimate establishment. We soon, discover, however just how illegitimate the place is as officers come to arrest it's owner for tax evasion. The bar is closed without Ilona having ever been paid after working there for six weeks. Lauri's attempt to collect her wages ends in his being horribly beaten, and for a few days, until he mends, he stays away from home and wife.

     The drinking increases, while Ilona imagining her restaurant juggles with various financial scenarios to see if such an idea would be possible with the few funds they have left. They sell their car, and out of desperation Lauri bets it at a local casino, hoping they might double the amount. They lose it all. As Lauri says, "We can always eat wallpaper."

     The creditors send workmen to remove the new television set and most of the furniture they have.

     In complete desperation, Ilona visits a local hair salon, telling its owner that she had trained as a hairdresser as a young girl. The woman offers her a week without pay as a test. But before she can accept she discovers in the salon chair the former owner of  Dubrovnik, Mrs. Sjöholm (Elina Salo), who suggests that Ilona should open a restaurant. Although it has been her dream, Ilona is now utterly fearful of such a risky endeavor, even though her former boss agrees to loan the money for the start-up costs. Ultimately, if reluctantly, she agrees.

     She hires the former head waiter and together they search out the Dubrovnik cook, who now hangs out on the street with other winos. Whisking him away to a alcohol rehabilitation hospital, where he is cured, they take him back into their little family. His suggestions to serve up some of the same menu items he had at Dubrovik is met with approval, but Ilona has also come to new perceptions, as she demands there be some simple food on her menu for the local workers. Her restaurant does not have the exoticism of a distant Adriatic city, but, is rather, a straightforward statement of what they have all been seeking and are willing to do: Work.

      As the first lunch approaches, the place remains empty as the waiters nervously adjust the dishware and Ilona touches her hair, remaining in her place in near terror, yet with the perseverance she has maintained throughout. Will anyone come? Mrs. Sjöholm shows up, trying to cheer them. She is a tough bird who admits: "When I was young I drunk many men under the table."

      The clock is near noon, but only one couple peruses the menu outside, declaring it too expensive.

      Then, suddenly, two garbage workers enter and order. Others begin to appear. On the telephone Lauri takes a reservation for 30 wrestlers that evening. When the camera pans back to the dining room, we see the place is abuzz. Calmly and quietly, Ilona and Lauri move to the front stoop of their small miracle of a restaurant and gaze off into the sky. A future is visible once more. 

Los Angeles, December 11, 2011

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