Filmmaker Retrospective: The Tragicomic Cinema of Aki Kaurismäki

6. The Match Factory Girl (orig. Tulitikkutehtaan tyttö, 1990)

The Match Factory Girl

Iris (Kati Outinen) is an unhappy Fordistic employee of a match-factory. She lives with her parents in a tiny house, and has virtually no skill in approaching people. She goes from place to place in order to colour her daily routine a little more, but does not feel encouraged to approach anybody.

One evening, she meets a rich man named Aarne, and rapidly gets involved with him. Aarne does not seem to be interested, though, and harshly rejects Iris’ presence, denying her any further dates. The man even goes as far as to pay her for having slept with him.

Outinen highlighted a darker performance and succeeded in incorporating a troubled young woman. Iris is the personification of the undesired shy girl, and her story may well be the only piece that Kaurismäki has directed that has a female-dilemma-centred plot.

Iris’ silence can be perceived as a horrible clamour that speaks for a lifetime of displacement and isolation, and the exploration of such a visceral story strengthens the relevance of this film, the closing chapter in the Proletariat Trilogy.

As she finds out that she is pregnant, Aaren promptly ignores all her hopes of raising the child in a stable family environment, since he would rather see her have the baby aborted. Iris’ ultimate crime is a cry for help, a hateful scream, a long-awaited outburst.

And unlike the other films in the trilogy in question, The Match Factory Girl does not bring an ending involving migration or change. Iris’ only change is that her isolation now is not even her personal singularity any longer; it belongs to the correctional system.


7. La Vie de Bohème (1992)

La Vie de Bohème (1992)

Kaurismäki has said that he has directed some of his films drunk, and some sober. It is easy to bet that La Vie de Bohème is a member of the former group. The film is one of the few by the filmmaker to actually take on the façade of a comedy as a primary genre, so to speak.

Of course, classifications come and go, sometimes they hang in the balance, but this film exhibits several particularities of an amusing narrative. The three main characters – Marcel Marx, also seen in Le Havre; Rodolfo, and Schaunard – are unsuccessful artists in their own circumstances: the former writes for magazines, the second is a painter whose stay in Paris is illegal (he is from Albania), whereas the latter is a post-modernist pianist.

The trio would do anything possible to achieve commercial comfort, but no luck knocks on their doors. Rodolfo – played here by Pellonpää – soon meets Mimi, a woman of humble background who works as a barmaid and does not have many friends.

Marcel is kicked out of his flat for not paying his rent, and Schaunard moves in. When looking for new opportunities, the three of them seem to wish for collective collaboration, but they usually clash because of their contradictory personalities.

The film has a distinctive, visually cunning black-and-white neo-noir feeling. Shadows awaken different feelings depending on the occasion, but the narrative generally calls for brighter lighting, but harder shadows in contrast.

The comedic aspect of the film is usually associated with the chaotic and absurd nature of Marx’s actions, as well as Rodolfo’s pathetic efforts to make his art seem important and profound, when in fact it expresses the very urgency of getting a hold of substantial capital for simple survival.

Mimi becomes a vital character during the last third of the film. She comes closer to Rodolfo, almost begging for shelter, always in dire straits due to unemployment. This is, together with Drifting Clouds, another film that may well have represented the Finnish recession of the early 1990s.

An often highly praised production, La Vie de Bohème exaggerates in building its irresponsible characters, but that can be associated to its humorous note. The ending, however, can be considered one of the most tragic in Kaurismäki’s career.


8. Drifting Clouds (orig. Kauas pilvet karkaavat, 1996)

Drifting Clouds

Drifting Clouds is the first title in the Finland Trilogy. Its somewhat cheery moments counterbalance the crises that the couple Ilona-Lauri experiences. After losing their respective jobs in very close occasions, the two strive to set up a business of their own.

Pride and anticipation are crucial themes here. Lauri cannot accept the possibility of them living from welfare money, and the extensive quest for the right business formula seems never to become something concrete for the couple.

The inspiration for such conflicts may have arisen from the Finnish recession, which explains why businesses in the film were failing to keep up with the market, sometimes going bankrupt. They strive on, without much expertise or goodwill, but they do.

The title of this film already gives away the rather upbeat nature of its ending. The restaurant they set up never seems to prosper, just as hopelessness starts crawling on their minds and disturbing the joy in their relationship, but never too much.

As aforementioned, there is a cheery tone to the film’s narrative, and Kaurismäki’s fascination with American music is partly responsible for that. There is piano being played in the opening sequence and lines about “a wonderful girl I love;” then there is rock being played in different occasions, and all of this diegetic music serves to set a more positive, charming mood to a film that bears aesthetic resemblances to a neo-noir (and not the only one in Kaurismäki’s repertoire to do so).

The film goes for a few comic nuances, such as Lauri’s falling unconscious after giving Ilona the news that he has lost his driver’s license. As with Aki’s comic efforts, the film presents such nuances in a sweet and subtle way, backed up by the casual and pleasant plotline that embeds an otherwise heavy story.

The ultimate success of the restaurant astonishes both Ilona and Lauri, and their countenances and subsequent actions of triviality shows well how pleasantly unexpected the event was.


9. The Man without a Past (orig. Mies vailla menneisyyttä, 2002)

The Man Without a Past

It is only logical that a director with such fascination with themes of despair and melancholy would someday make a film about such a psychologically wrecking experience as memory loss. The title could not have been more accurate in determining the film’s focus, and Kaurismäki tries to portray as realistically as possible the difficult search for identity and sense of community of the protagonist “M” after he gets brutally beaten in a public garden.

As usual, Kaurismäki works with the plot in a way that exposes the protagonist’s fears and weaknesses to a vaster reality. M tries to blend in, develops various kinds of relationships with other people that influence his perception of himself.

Once again, the director makes sure that the material implications of such an accident are taken into consideration, and oftentimes one finds that M’s financial conundrums are rising to a higher status of relevance in the storyline than his psychological ones. His relationship with Irma – another role for Kati Outinen – is the remedy for his soul, and the usual ailments of an amnesiac start fading away as the end draws near.

The Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film was well deserved, but Kaurismäki did not mind much. He chose not to attend the ceremony as a protest against the war that the U. S. was waging against Iraq. The film has a sharp sense of human interaction, as evidenced by its wonderful dialogue.

All the supporting characters somehow guide M through the hard road back to his former self; all of them recognise traits of his personality, traits and social abilities to rebuild his life based on his progressive will to communicate with the simpler individuals. It is a film about recalling one’s roots and acknowledging one’s need to meet other humans and learn from them.


10. Le Havre (2011)

Le Havre 1

A slightly sad story with an upbeat ending and bits of hopeful happenings scattered throughout. A group of African immigrants is found in a ship container in the small town of Le Havre, Normandy, France. One little boy from the group runs away from the immigration police and seeks refuge under a pier.

Marcel Marx (yes, the very same writer from La Vie de Bohème) is now a shoeshiner and lives a humble neighbourhood with his wife Arletty, who later finds out that she has got cancer but hides the shocking news from her husband, even persuading her doctor to do the same. Marcel is having his lunch, sitting on the pier’s wooden steps, and a small human figure can be seen in the water.

Idrissa, the young boy’s name, is terrified, and Marcel tries his best to appear friendly and thoughtful, although his usual apathy does not let him fully demonstrate his goodwill. This is the beginning of a hard quest to hide the lad from the authorities until a better plan to deliver him to his final destination – London – can materialise.

The film succeeds in structuring its narrative and climax around the curious relationship between an illegal immigrant who cannot conceive the seriousness of his situation and needs all the help he can get, and a man who himself is expendable to his civil environment and whose only element of peace is his harmonious routine with his significant other, who is in danger of leaving his world.

It seems as though Idrissa appeared in Marcel’s life so that the latter could find more room for compassion for other people, while considering internally a reflection upon the importance of his marriage.

Kaurismäki surely went for a more optimistic film with Le Havre. The fact that La Vie de Bohème is its spiritual ancestor of sorts – at least regarding the linearity of Marcel’s life – evidences the contrasts of emotional rhythm in their respective endings. Idrissa manages to find his way to England with Marcel’s assistance, even when Inspector Monet lets him go and pretends he never saw the boy, an instance of unexpected compassion in itself.

Author Bio: George is a PhD student on Comparative Studies of Cinema and Literature. He is in deep love with post-apocalyptic films from the Cold War era, and has special affection for Gothic fiction as well. George loves writing short stories, painting, and playing some RPG.