Bleak Humour Amidst Melancholy: A Brief Retrospective of Aki Kaurismäki’s Films

Aki Kaurismäki’s new film titled The Other Side of Hope (Toivon tuolla puolen), which tells the story of a Finnish travelling salesman and a Syrian refugee crossing paths, is the second instalment in Kaurismäki’s trilogy focusing on port cities, initiated with Le Havre. It premiered in Finland on the 3rd of February and is in the competition for the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival. Reason enough to revisit Kaurismäki’s older films in a brief retrospective.

From the man who famously stated, “When all hope is gone, there is no reason for pessimism”, one should not expect the happiest of films from Aki Kaurismäki. This ideology, which the Fin partly attributes to his home country – “When it is dark outside, it is also dark in the mind” – has resulted in a series of bleak comedies, featuring predominantly heavily moustached men and frail women, who smoke constantly, talk seldom and smile even less. Given that the majority of his films are shot in Finland, one might wonder if their melancholic undertone should be attributed to the director’s state of mind or to that of his home country.

Being heavily influenced by the French film-maker Robert Bresson, Kaursimäki’s characters never act theatrically and often over-articulate the few lines that they are given. Like in Bresson’s films, a lot of the action in Kaurismäki’s films happens off-screen, leaving it to the viewer to fill in the gaps. In his Notes on the Cinematography, Bresson argues that instead of acting out the psychological disposition of their characters, a director should instead aim for his actors to become canvases on which the audience can project their own interpretations of the characters. Kaurismäki seems to agree with this: his actors never over-act. If anything, they under-act, as they seldom raise their voice or show any emotion, whatever the situation. Moreover, they articulate their lines as if they are language teachers, making it seems as if the importance of their words is not to be misheard. As a result of this acting style, when Kaurismäki’s characters do show compassion towards each other, it seems as if they mean it all the more.

Kaurismäki has been surprisingly consistent in his subject matter. His films often focus on the seamy side of society: people working in low-paid, often very repetitive jobs. A good example of this is Iris (Kati Outinen) in The Match Factory Girl (Tulitikkutehtaan tyttö), whose main task is to make sure that the machines in the match factory are running smoothly. As such, she devotes the mayor part of her workdays to adjusting the labels on matchboxes and keeping an eye on the conveyor belt. On top of that, she, like most of Kaurismäki’s characters, is very lonely. When you think that it cannot get any worse, it turns out that it can, as they often get sacked. In spite of their repetitive nature, the least that jobs provide them with is a sense of security; when deprived of this final straw, their lives change radically. This is where Kaurismäki’s bleak sense of humour comes in.

After a character has been let go, a new opportunity often presents itself in the form of rapid encounter with a stranger. In Shadows in Paradise (Varjoja paratiisissa), a garbage man Nikander (Matti Pellonpää) meets cashier Ilona (Kati Outinen) when she bandages his bleeding hand as he visits the supermarket in which she works. After a difficult start, the two end up deciding to take the ferry to Estonia. In order to do so, Ilona is forced to quit her job. When mentioning this to Nikander he simply replies: “We will get you another one later.” “What will we life off in the meantime?” Ilona asks. “Small potatoes”, Nikander responds. This is the typical kind of bleak humour to expect from a Kaurismäki film.

Similarly, in Ariel, after steel-factory worker Taisto (Turo Pajala) gets sacked, he meets traffic warden Irmeli (Susanna Haavisto) when she gives him a ticket for parking his car in the wrong spot. Instead of paying, Taisto takes Irmeli out for dinner. After hitting it off with each other, everything moves very quickly. When discussing Taisto’s moving in, Irmeli mentions that she has a child from her previous marriage, to which Taisto responds: “Good, that saves us the time of raising one.”

Even though not all of his films are shot in Finland, with I Hired a Contract Killer (Siivoton juttu) being shot in England and La Vie de Bohème being recorded in France, for example, Kaurismäki’s distinctive camera work, subject choice and bleak humour almost make his films instantly recognisable as being a product of the melancholic Fin.

CategoriesFeatures Issue 18