Director of the Month: Aki Kaurismaki
Hello and welcome to Director of the Month, your cut-out-and-keep guide to the very finest auteurs in filmland…
This Month: Aki Kaurismaki
Years active: 1983 – present
Number of films (as director): 16
Do say: “Having produced a steady stream of distinctive, deadpan, downbeat and strangely iconic comedy-dramas for nearly thirty years, you are truly one of the most successful independent film directors of modern times. You are also almost certainly the greatest film director ever to hail from Finland.”
Don’t say: “Are you from Sweden?”
Who Hell He? It’s admittedly somewhat hard for me to gage just how much of a big deal Aki Kaurismaki really is. You see, that’s because Aki Kaurismaki is probably my favourite film director. Ever. And as a result, my sense of his importance and standing and all that jazz is a little bit warped. What I can say for certain, however, is that Kaurismaki has been acknowledged (at least by those who are aware of him and his work) as one of the most unique talents currently working in world cinema. His films are noted for their desert dry humour, prickly loser protagonists, and moody Helsinki locales. That’s not to say they don’t possess any heart or romance. They do, just heart and romance Kaurismaki style.
It’s tempting to refer to Aki Kaurismaki as exclusively a “cult” film director, which he undoubtedly is to a certain extent, but he has enjoyed the odd brush with mainstream popularity throughout his career (although the grumpy Finn probably didn’t actually “enjoy” them as such). If the man on the street is going to have heard of Kaurismaki for anything, it will have been for either of his two best known films; one-of-a-kind Soviet Rock ‘n’ Roll road movie Leningrad Cowboys Go America or his Cannes award winning drama The Man Without a Past. But then, who could watch only one or two Kaurismakis and not be inclined to seek out the rest? I certainly couldn’t, and who knows, maybe you’ll find yourself hooked, too (if you’re not already). Read on!
Six of the Best:
Crime and Punishment (1983)
Almost certainly the least typical film in the Kaurismaki canon, Crime and Punishment would be easy to overlook if it weren’t so brilliant. Ol’ Aki said he chose to adapt the seminal Dostoevsky novel as he wanted to aim high and fall far, but that’s just the characteristically dour self-deprecation talking as this is an astoundingly assured debut. A comic supporting turn from future Kaurismaki regular Matti Pellonpaa, as a blue collar Finn struggling to learn English, would hint at the director’s developing distinctive style.
Shadows in Paradise (1986)
Pellonpaa is still trying to get his head around the English language in Kaurismaki’s third feature, although this time he’s playing the lead as a lowly rubbish collector who strikes up an on/off relationship with a perennially fired shopgirl. His petulant flame is played by another Kaurismaki favourite, Kati Outinen, and together they form the director’s typically down-at-heel golden couple. Kaurismaki really had established his voice by the time of Shadows in Paradise, and the film shows many of his favoured themes coming fully to the fore; loneliness, loss, rotten luck, and unexpected redemption.
Kaurismaki hits the road for the first of four road movies he has made thus far, each one as odd a variation on the genre as I’m sure you can imagine. Ariel tells the tale of Taisto, a miner whose father committs suicide, but not before bequeathing his son his prized Cadillac. It’s not long before Taisto and his new wheels are violently parted, however, and our hero chances upon an opportunity for revenge that may endanger his future hapiness further still should he take it.
Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989)
We’re on the road again, this time with none other than the Leningrad Cowboys, a Soviet rock group trying to break America under the shaky guiding hand of their shady tyrannical, alcoholic manager (Pellonpaa again, genius). Leningrad Cowboys Go America is certainly surreal and decidedly episodic, but the film still manages to be accessible due to its high count of top-notch visual gags and barnstorming (quite literally at one point) Red Army Rock ‘n’ Roll numbers. The Cowboys would prove to be Kaurismaki’s most enduring creation, and they bizarrely became a real band that still tours the world to this day.
I Hired a Contract Killer (1990)
Next stop London for a blacker-than-black comedy which sees a laid-off and lonely Frenchman turn to a professional hitman after he finds that, despite all his despair, he can’t quite muster the guts to do himself in. However, our hero has a change of heart after he finds love, but to his horror, he also finds that he might have left it too late to call off the hit that he’s put on himself. Some wag once described this as an “Ealing comedy on downers” and that’s good enough for me, it also boasts a startlingly eclectic cast, which includes Truffaut’s onscreen alter-ego Jean-Pierre Leaud, British TV personality Margi Clarke, Performance/Star Wars character actor Kenneth Colley, and even a cameo appearance from Joe Strummer!
The Man Without a Past (2002)
Drawing on personal experience, the once homeless Kaurismaki bravely depicts Helsinki’s destitute community with both realism and warmth, as a man is badly beaten and wakes up without his memory or anywhere to go. Luckily, he befriends a loveable dog and finds love with a stern, yet kindly Salvation Army worker, so when his previous life eventually catches up with him, he finds that he wants to stay where he is. Without question The Man Without a Past is the greatest critical success of Kaurismaki’s career, winning the Grand Prix at Cannes, where Kati Outinen also desevervedly picked up Best Actress. They even gave a special award to the pooch!
What about the rest?: Calamari Union (1985) is a freewheeling, low-key surrealist oddity that represents Kaurismaki’s oddest hour… Without bearing quite as impressive results as his earlier take on Crime and Punishment, the director turned to literature again for the still enjoyable Hamlet Goes Business (1987)… The Match Factory Girl (1990) is the story of a blue collar girl’s quiet, sadistic revenge, and boasts Kati Outinen’s best performance to date… La Vie de Boheme (1992) is another literary adaptation, a charming tale of starving artists in Paris… and Take Care of Your Scarf, Tatiana (1994) is another road movie, in which two Finns pick up a couple of Russian girls and bond over vodka, Rock ‘n’ Roll, and as few words as possible… Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses (1994) is an inferior second instalment in the unruly rock ‘n’ roll saga, and sadly turned out to be the last Kaurismaki film Matti Pellonpaa would appear in before his death… Drifting Clouds (1996) is a beautifully put together tale of unemployment and heartache in Helsinki… and hats off to Kaurismaki for making a modern day silent film with the unusual Juha (1999)… Lights in the Dusk (2006) is a riveting, yet still typically melancholy, neo-noir… and the forthcoming Le Havre (2011), concerning a lost immigrant child’s adventures in France, looks very promising indeed.
In addition to all of the above, Kaurismaki has also (like most film directors) helmed a number of shorts, in addition to many videos for the Leningrad Cowboys. He has also worked on and acted in several films for his almost equally talented director brother Mika, but that’s a story for another month…