Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Aki Kaurismäki: Dogs Don’t Lie

(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2007)

Speaking of his 1996 film Drifting Clouds, about a couple trying to rebuild their working lives after unemployment, Kaurismäki said that when writing the script he ‘placed the task of Frank Capra’s emotional rescue story It’s a Wonderful Life in one extreme corner and De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves in the other, and the Finnish reality in between’. This is a fair description of the tone that pervades his work. Pinioned between extremes of despair and delight, between heartlessness and consoling support there’s a middle ground of people taking the vicissitudes of fate in their stride, surviving somehow – sometimes on the compassion of others and sometimes simply enduring. It’s a world of deadpan stoicism, stonefaced comic melancholy and hangdog longing in which people are buoyed by improbable hope, fall flat on their face (sometimes literally), and then are buoyed by improbable hope all over again – as long as they aren’t too hungover to remember that is. And it’s a place whose musical accompaniment is often rock ‘n’ roll and accordion-based Finnish tango.

As for his filming regime, he says that he often shoots the rehearsal and prints that instead of the first take as the performances are fresher, which is also why he doesn’t let actors read the dialogue before the shoot. He says he doesn’t move the camera much because it’s hard to do it with a hangover, and that, although he likes seeing actors acting in other people's films, that really doesn’t fit in his own. Lastly, he says he has two rules for his films, nobody shouts and nobody laughs.

In The Match Factory Girl (1990), Kaurismäki’s regular actress Kati Outinen plays the sorely put-upon factory worker Iris. She lives with her mother and stepfather in their cramped apartment, bombarded by the output of the world’s news on their television. She cooks for them – only to have her mother shamelessly steal tasty morsels from her plate. Even when she makes an effort to bring a little love into her life by recklessly spending some of her wages on a pretty dress, her stepfather just gives her a slap and calls her a whore – which is exactly what the man who picks her up in the disco also takes her for. Misfortune compounds misery until all that she has left is the thought of vengeance.

There is a command of tone and material here from the very start, which  begins with the industrial processes of a match factory. We see logs stacked in the corner of a room and hear the circular saw that has cut them into these lengths. Then the bark is stripped and long sheets of wood are pulled, stamped and chopped into matches that are then washed, graded, dipped, sorted and packed. The actions of the machines are remorselessly, intrusively, efficiently violent, and even if you know nothing about the film except its title, The Match Factory Girl, you can intuit that we are to see this woman used and stripped down to her barest existence in a similar fashion. This dread feeling is leavened by an anthropomorphic ridiculousness regarding the actions of the machinery that is almost Tatiesque in its form. Likewise, the soundtrack is filled with the hums, rattles, shakes, riffles and clanks of the industrial processes, and this also recalls that low-frequency hum that permeates Tati’s Playtime.

After a couple of minutes of watching this heavy-duty machinery, we finally see the match factory girl herself – or rather her hands, whose light dabs at the labels of the match packets seem so delicate coming after the implacable force of the machinery we have just seen. Again, we intuit use and abuse. When the camera lifts to show her face, her heavily shadowed eyes make her look like she has fetched up from some expressionist drama from the silent era.

None of the characters in Kaurismäki’s films are exactly voluble, but in The Match Factory Girl, direct conversation in the film is reduced to almost nil. In fact, the only directly spoken line between people in the first quarter of the film is ‘a small beer please’. Likewise, it is the small details that are so telling and communicate so much about the characters, details such as Iris’s jaunty pink hairband, or the glass of orange juice that she leaves on the otherwise empty table when she gets up to dance, and that has an aura of pathetic hope about it, as does the little sprig of flowers in the corner of the sheet of notepaper on which she writes to Aarne.

It’s worth noting that Kaurismäki’s distinctive style and atmosphere comes about through details that aren’t shown too. After Iris is rejected by Aarne she lies on the sofa in her mother and stepfather’s flat. Her mother comes to console her, or if not console her then at least sit with her. She is smoking and we watch aghast as the ash on her cigarette gets ever longer. What happens to this ash is not shown – it doesn’t need to be, as the thought that it drops on Iris’s sleeve is so overwhelmingly probable given everything else that has happened to her that we create it in our minds, and then extend this thought by imagining Iris washing and ironing her blouse the next day.

With The Match Factory Girl, Kaurismäki’s cinema pares itself right down to the bone of human loneliness and endurance. The two elements are crucial. Without the second, the first would be, well, unendurable. As it is, the excrutiating heartlessness of Iris’s one-night stand Aarne, his remoreseless pitilessness, is so repugnant, that he is evil personified, and so takes his place as one of Kaurismäki’s favourite characters, the indifferent agent of another’s downfall, or maybe even their salvation. Kaurismäki is often compared to Bresson in elements of his cinematic style, but unlikely though it seems there is a spiritual comparison to be made here too. Kati Outinen too, with her look of long-suffering inscrutability, unrealised dreams and blighted naivety is perfect for the role. Just once we see her almost smile, hidden by the book she is reading on the bus.

The final part of Kaurismäki's 'losers' trilogy (following Drifting Clouds and The Man without a Past), Lights in the Dusk sees honest night watchman Koistinen – whose employer at Western Alarms still asks for his name out of spite after three years – ignored by colleagues, seduced by a mobster’s vamp, framed for robbery, and then get beaten nearly to death on his release from prison. All of which is unlooked-for, undeserved and utterly unjust. It seems perverse then to say that one can leave this film uplifted by a spirit of human endurance and the acts of kindness that can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Kaurismäki claims Chaplin (especially his City Lights) and Bresson as the godfathers of this film, which is entirely fitting; the heartless erasure of a man’s possibilities by an indifferent nemesis – in this case a deeply unpleasant hood named Lindholm – who may also prove to be the unexpected route to spiritual salvation, is familiar from Bresson, but this is balanced by – well, not happy-go-lucky Chaplinesque optimism, certainly not – but rather a stolid bloody-minded acceptance of the situation and tantalising glimpses of future promise.

Partly as a reaction to The Man Without a Past, which he describes as ‘insufferably sickly-sweet’, Kaurismäki said that his original idea for the film was to put his protagonist in an exceptionally bleak modern milieu – in this case the soulless commercial district of Ruoholahti in Helsinki – and then batter and bully him to death (to provide a ‘realistic’ vision of life in present-day Finland). He doesn’t quite go through with this. ‘Luckily for our protagonist, the author of the film has a reputation of being a soft-hearted old man, so we can assume there is a spark of hope illuminating the final scene’ says he in his accompanying notes to the film. And so there is. As Kaurismäki also says, ‘there’s a lot of hope in this film – but only in the last 18 frames.’ It’s not quantity but quality that counts here.

The colour schemes that Kaurismäki has his characters act out their dramas among are part of the film’s great appeal, even to the extent of (despairing) laugh-out-loud moments such as the meal that Koistinen provides for the blonde ‘femme fatale’ (blue stockings that give her legs the colour of death, long, vaguely threatening red blouse collars), which consists of 4 bagels on a plate and knives and forks with flesh-pink plastic handles. (‘The roast is in the oven,’ he says, improbably.)

Appropriately for a study of loneliness, the canvases of Edward Hopper provide another point of reference for the set designs, as when, after Koistinen has told the hot dog woman he has a date, and she sees a hopeful relationship suddenly extinguished, she turns off the red neon ‘Grilli’ sign above her stall, it gives a little fizzle and leaves her lit up like a point of light in the deep blue night. Like her, we feel we have lost something. (A similar scene occurs in Drifting Clouds as the final comment on a closing restaurant. That film also provides one of Kaurismaki’s loveliest Hopper moments, when the waitress and her tram-driving partner ride through the night-time streets, the only passengers on his yellow-green tram, the lights of the city reflected in the windows.

Dialogue is spare – and what need do you have of words when the characters, their faces, gestures and their situations make everything so plain? Janne Hyytiäinen (Koistinen), who played the bartender in Dogs Have No Hell (part of the Ten Minutes Older: The Trumpet anthology) has the perfect face for the role. One can imagine him as a child, eager to please, and something of that has survived to adulthood, but life and loneliness have sculpted an façade of slightly aggressive impassiveness on his face, from behind which this urge to connect with others makes tentative, slightly pathetic peeps, only to be met with abuse and rebuff.

There is an overriding feeling in Kaurismäki’s films of a tenderness between people that is buried so deep it barely surfaces. In his earlier film The Man Without a Past, after he gets fixed up with a container to live in and has electricity run over from the nearest pylon, he asks the electrician who has wired him up, ‘What do I owe you?’. The man replies, in the kind of grand statement which Kaurismäki’s characters are fond of pronouncing, ‘If I’m ever face down in the gutter, turn me over’.

Another feature of films such as Lights in the Dusk, The Man Without a Past and Drifting Clouds is their distinctively bold use of colour. Sets come first, the characters fit in. In other hands, this garishness could be considered kitsch, but Kaurismäki is not in the business of mockery. He never gives his unfortunate characters anything less than full respect. The colours are part of their world and curiously, placed somewhere beyond jest.

After watching a Kaurismäki film, it’s impossible not to feel a little better about the world – even with something as utterly downbeat as The Match Factory Girl. This is his intention. ‘It has always been my secret ambition to make films that the viewer walks out from feeling a little happier than when entering the cinema’, he says.

Last, but certainly not least, dogs. Lights in the Dusk features a performance from Paju. Her great-grandmother Laika played the role of Baudelaire in La Vie de Boheme, her grandmother, Piitu, was in Juha, and her mother, Tähti, won the Palme D’og prize in Cannes in 2002 for her role as Hannibal in The Man without a Past. Says Kaurismäki, ‘I like dogs, mankind I don't care for too much. You're supposed to like mankind because you're part of it, but I prefer dogs. They are honest and they don't lie.’

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