Thursday, January 5, 2017

Aki Kaurismäki | Ariel

bad luck gone good

by Douglas Messerli

Aki Kaurismäki (writer and director) Ariel / 1988

Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki’s 1988 film, Ariel, as some critics have commented, is a true mix of different Hollywood genres—all presented with a kind of droll melancholy that is could come only from the eyes of a Laplander, like the major character of this tale, Taisto Kasurinen (Turo Pajala).

When the local mine for which Taisto and his friends work closes down, his father advises
 him to move south and hands him the keys to his white convertible before committing suicide. Unable to even bring up the top of the car, Taisto puts his scarf around his head and, after withdrawing his final pay, takes to the road. Along the way, he stops for a hamburger, where two local thugs knock the rube Taisto out and relieve him of every last cent.
       Stumbling back into the car, he travels to the first city he can find, where he is forced to do temporary day work at a shipping dock. His pay is hardly enough to put him up in a local homeless shelter and to permit him to purchase a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers.

       Frustrated in his attempt to find any other kind of work, he encounters meter maid, Irmeli Pihlaja (Susanna Haavisto) who hands him a parking ticket before tossing her hat into the street, tearing up the ticket, and joining him in the cold front seat and an inexpensive dinner. After dinner she invites him up to her small apartment where she lives with her young son. And  so begins a new chapter in this tale, a story of poor working stiffs that shares much with Chaplin’s Modern Times.

       Although Irmeli holds down two jobs just to make her furniture payments—by day she works in a meat-packing plant while by night she works as a building guard—Taisto cannot find a single man who might hire him, and ultimately is thrown even out of the homeless center. After being forced to sell his sporty convertible at an outrageously low price, he suddenly encounters one of the men who robbed him and speeds after him, only to be picked up by the police and tried for attempted robbery, attack with a knife, and several other charges. We don’t know whether this taciturn loser has even attempted to explain his side of the story, but in Kaurismäki’s work it seemingly does’t even matter; the man is doomed by a society that obviously could care less.

       And, accordingly, the movie shifts again, now becoming a prison tale, somewhat in the manner of Bresson’s A Man Escaped. Now in a cell with a morose sedative-addicted murderer, Mikkonen (Kaurismäki regular Matti Pellonpää), Taisto is visited by the loyal Irmeli and her  son, asks her to marry him, and to make plans when he returns home. When she slips a file in the spine of book she brings Taisto for his supposed birthday, the two cellmates begin plans for an escape, and amazingly succeed. Clearly Irmeli’s love means something of a change in Taisto’s luck, for the two succeed in marrying and spending a few hours in bed before the police show up.
       The boy, however, on the look-out, warns Taisto in time for a window escape, and he is off with Mikkonen to find someone to provide them with false passports. In order to “raise” money for the necessary payments and cargo-hold voyage to Mexico or Brazil, the men clumsily rob a bank, dropping much of the money on the run, but bagging enough that they can pay off the passports and get smuggled out of the country. 
      But now it is Mikkonen’s luck that has run out, as, when he returns for the passports, the crooks demand all the money. Challenging them to a fight with broken bottle, Mikkonen is shot. And, for the first time, Taisto, checking up on his friend, is forced into violence himself, killing the two underworld men, scooping up the passports, money, and his badly hurt friend and speeding off to pick up his hardworking wife and comic-book reading son. 
       Mikkonen dies on route, but not before he discovers the magic button that lifts up the convertible’s roof, as if he were, in fact, entombing himself and other passengers.

       After a quick burial of Mikkonen, the family finds its way to the pier, where, after another  payment, they are to be taken to the ship. Given the near-impossibility that Irmeli and Taisto have had in living in this uncaring Finnish landscape, we only fear that they might, once again, be taken for a ride.
      Surprisingly, and truly ironically, the tale ends happily, with the three starting out, once more, on a different kind of road trip—across the sea to the new world of Mexico.
      Like most of this wonderful director’s loser-heroes, Taisto and his tiny family bravely survive the only way they know how, with a kind clumsy comicalness that reveals their ineptitude while simultaneously showing their true humanity; and in that respect, Kaurismäki’s works are generally dark comedies in the manner of Chaplin’s various renditions of his little tramp. No matter what they do—to dream, loaf, rob, or even murder—we side with them and pray for their escape from the unjust worlds that surround them, for they are not Hollywood heroes, but people just like us.

Los Angeles, January 5, 2017

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