Kaurismaki’s loser trilogy

Lately I seem to have had a run of watching decidedly odd films by Scandinavian directors.  A month ago it was the apocalyptic Melancholia from Danish director Lars von Trier, while yesterday I wrote about Songs From The Second Floor by Swedish director Roy Andersson – radically different but also with an apocalyptic mood.  Now, with Lights in the Dusk,  I’ve completed Aki Kaurismäki’s ‘loser trilogy’, a series of distinctive minimalist comedies populated by working class Finns struggling with the day-to-day hardships of boring jobs, unemployment and homelessness.

The backdrop to the films of the loser trilogy – which are considered the most representative and important from the long career of Kaurismäki – is the severe economic crisis that affected Finland in the 1990s, following the collapse of its main trading partner the Soviet Union.  A major recession hit the northern, industrial part of Finland, leading to years in which unemployment peaked at 16%. The first film, Drifting Clouds, is the story of a couple who both lose their jobs, while its sequel, The Man Without a Past, follows a homeless man who has woken up with no idea who he is. Whereas the first two parts of the loser trilogy portray unemployment and homelessness, in Lights in the Dusk, the focus is on loneliness in a story of a nightwatchman who is bullied at his workplace and by almost everyone he encounters. The trilogy is indeed a world of loners, misfits and losers.

Aki Kaurismäki, together with his older brother Mika, virtually invented the new Finnish cinema. Both brothers are prolific film-makers: together they have been responsible for one-fifth of the total output of the Finnish film industry since the early 1980s. It is Aki’s films, however, that have broken through to international audiences, being garlanded with various awards.  His films are short, eccentric parodies of various genres (road movies, film noir, rock musicals), populated by lugubrious hard-drinking Finns and set to eclectic soundtracks that invariably feature Finnish folk tunes and rock’n’roll.

As far as can be gleaned from interviews and profiles, Aki Kaurismäki is himself one of those lugubrious hard-drinking Finns. Before his career in film he worked in a wide variety of jobs including postman, dish-washer and film critic, before forming his film  production and distribution company, Villealfa (named in homage to Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville) with his brother Mika. Aki has won international acclaim – for example, The Man Without a Past won the Grand Prix and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Foreign Language Film category in 2003. But Kaurismäki is a man of firm views and refused to attend the ceremony, objecting to the US invasion of Iraq. Kaurismäki’s next film Lights in the Dusk was again chosen to be the Finnish entry in the best foreign film category, but he refused the nomination in  protest at American foreign policy.  In 2003, Kaurismäki boycotted the New York Film Festival as a show of solidarity with Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami who had been refused a US visa.

The first film in the loser trilogy was Drifting Clouds (1996).  It displays all the hallmarks of a Kaurismäki film: minimalist acting, almost devoid of any emotion, luminous cinematography with trademark saturated colours in the style of 1950s Hollywood movies, and characters who have been passed by progress and forced onto the scrap heap through no fault of their own.Somehow, though, Kaurismäki manages to illuminate the misery with flashes of humour, observing his characters with compassion and humanity, finding hope amidst despair.

In Helsinki, Ilona works at the Dubrovnik restaurant. Through hard work and determination, she has managed to raise herself from dishwasher to headwaiter.  But the restaurant, already old-fashioned and in decline, is hit by hard times as customers spend less.  Soon the owner has to sell up, and Ilona is out of a job. So, too, is her husband Lauri who is a tram driver.  What has happened is not their fault: they are both the victims of economic forces beyond their control.  But, although the cards seem to be stacked against them, a collective effort by the couple and their unemployed friends leads to the successful opening of a new eating place, ironically named the Restaurant Work.

Roger Ebert is a great fan of Kaurismaki ‘s work; this is was his pertinent comment on Drifting Clouds:

Kaurismaki has enormous love for these characters. He embraces their comic pathos, and rejoices that they do not surrender. It’s all done with such subtle irony that critics use words like `minimalist’ to describe him – even though his screen is saturated with images and ideas, and true minimalism is more easily seen in something like Armageddon, which has half an idea, and spreads it thinly over 144 minutes.

A middle-aged man gets off a train in a station at night. Carrying a suitcase, he walks until he finds a park bench where he rests and falls asleep. Suddenly, he is attacked, beaten up and robbed. He staggers bleeding copiously into a shopping mall and collapses there. He dies at the hospital and the doctor comments that it’s better that way than to be left a vegetable for life. But the man suddenly wakes up and walks out, bandaged and still bleeding. He wanders to the bank of a river and falls asleep again. Two children find him and call their father. The family lives in an empty shipping container. They take him in, feed him and cure him. Finally one day he talks. He says he didn’t talk before because he had nothing to say.

Such are the bare bones of The Man Without a Past (2003), the second film in the trilogy. Very much in the same mould as Drifting Clouds, it’s another quirky yet heart-warming tale of characters struggling to get by in a blighted economy.  Once again there’s a static, almost theatrical quality to the acting and dialogue, epitomised in the blank responses of the protagonist, known only as M. His expressionless determination becomes increasingly funny as he greets each new setback with just a cigarette and the barest of shrugs. Each scene is is shot in bright, 1950s colours, with blasts of rockabilly or lush romantic music on the soundtrack.  You notice, too, that Kaurismaki has a thing about dogs – they appear in all his films, and as well as winning the Grand Prix at Cannes, The Man Without a Past was also awarded the unofficial ‘Palm Dog’ for Best Canine Performance – by the director’s dog, Tahti.

Writing in Slate, David Edelstein summed up what makes Kaurismaki ‘s formula work:

One of the challenges for any socially committed filmmaker working in what we would euphemistically call a “gritty” milieu is how to capture those settings in a way that neither romanticises them nor makes them so depressing that the average moviegoer runs screaming to the nearest mega-budget opiate. In his latest deadpan, minimalist comedy The Man Without a Past, the revered Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki has hit on a way to give you grim social realism and movie-ish sentimentality in one fell swoop: He has taken some of the bleakest settings on earth and added splotches of candy color; he has taken a minor-key story of an amnesiac who’s down and out and at the mercy of capitalism’s predators and added splotches of comic sweetness. The double vision is delightful—and surprisingly all of a piece.

The approach could so easily turn to whimsy, writes Edelstein, but in Kaurismäki’s films it is, he states, ‘anchored in anti-authoritarianism and the realities of class’.

Peter Bradshaw also captured the essence of Kaurismaki in his review of the film for The Guardian:

Kaurismaki’s compassion for the dispossessed is all more the engaging because of his lack of brow-furrowing seriousness; his movie is like a cork bobbing amiably on waves of lightness and unforced gaiety – always on the edge of surreality but never quite going further. I found myself giggling at loads of Kaurismaki’s dialogue long after the final credits. Accused of being fat, a security guard deadpans: “Keep my metabolism out of this.” An electrician surreptitiously hooks up our hero to the main power supply. “What do I owe you?” he asks. “If you see me face down in the gutter, turn me on to my back,” the electrician replies with a shrug

In Lights in the Dusk, Koistinen, a lonely nightwatchman, follows his nightshift at a shopping centre. Passive and lonely, Koistinen smokes, drinks, briefly dreams of setting up his own business, and is bullied and manipulated by everyone around him. His only friend (though he seems to distrust the possibility) is Aila who runs a late-night hot-dog van.  When Koistinen meets Mirja, who is in cahoots with jewel thieves, he is easily duped, and ends up serving time. No matter how bad things get for Koistinen – and by the end they’re terrible – he drifts passively through it all, accepting the consequences and fearful of standing up for himself.

This is the most decidedly melancholic film of the trio: rather than the blend of comedy and tragedy of the previous films, Lights in the Dusk heads more firmly in the direction of tragedy. The sumptuous colour palette, the fifties clothes and furniture styles, and the rockabilly is still present, but  the jokes are few and far between, and the environment is notably different, with repeated shots of modern Helsinki’s office blocks and urban motorways.

In the final scene, Koistinen lies betrayed and batttered with the steel and glass towers of 21st century Helsinki rising behind him. As he lies bleeding, he is comforted by Aila, the woman from the hot dog stand. The ending is left ambiguous, the final shot of Koistinen ‘s hand reaching for Aila’s: a small spark of hope, perhaps.

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