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A vibrantly scrappy rendition of a beloved tale.
"If the head is a man's noblest appendage, it is the most unpleasant part of a trout."
Facts of the Case
Marcel (Andre Wilms, Europa Europa) is a playwright and poet. Rodolfo (Matti Pellonpaa, Leningrad Cowboys Go America) is a painter. Schaunard (Kari Vaananan, Drifting Clouds) is a composer. All three have something in common: they're not particularly good at what they do, they're good-hearted and they're more or less broke. After meeting each other, the three men determine to join forces and make an effort to help each other get by. La Vie de Boheme chronicles their assorted misadventures.
Henri Murger's La Vie de Boheme has proven one of the more strangely malleable works of its era. That seems appropriate for a tale that doesn't quite work within the realm of conventional literary boundaries: stringing together a series of loosely-connected vignettes and paying little attention any sort of larger narrative (though larger themes are certainly present). The tale has been most famously packaged in musical form: as the opera La Boheme (penned by none other than Puccini) and as the Broadway musical Rent ("525,600 minutes…"). In addition, it served as the source material for a 1926 film starring Lillian Gish and John Gilbert, a 1935 film starring Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., a 1945 French version, a 1965 German version, Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge! and even a Dave Burrell jazz album. Many of these understandably present a very loose interpretation of the source material, riffing on Murger's themes rather than carefully recreating his stories.
So it is with Aki Kaurismaki's La Vie de Boheme, which offers a modern take on the tale and brings the director's trademark deadpan humor to the proceedings. Honestly, Kaurismaki might be the most well-qualified candidate to tackle this material, given than many of his movies tend to be comprised of loosely-connected vignettes united by larger social themes. The film barely has anything resembling a plot, but it sets a compelling tone and proves alternately entertaining and mournful. In other words, it's a Kaurismaki film.
Many have said that if you've seen one Kaurismaki film, you've seen them all. That's not entirely true, but it's easy to understand where such folks are coming from. You won't find much in this movie that you haven't seen elsewhere if you've explored much of his work, but there's plenty of pleasure to be had in his gentle comic vignettes. I particularly loved the early sequence in which Marcel tentatively negotiates with his diplomatic landlord, and a simultaneously sad and hilarious scene in which Schaunard treats his friends to one of his original musical numbers (a surprisingly sizable portion of it involves Schaunard simply banging his head on the piano).
The three male leads are all strong, but the heart and soul of the film proves to be the relationship between Rodolfo and Mimi (an excellent Evelyne Didi, Le Havre). Their gentle exchanges are captured with such tenderness. There's a wonderful little scene in which Rodolfo brings one of his paintings to an art gallery. A gallery employee angrily rejects the painting, telling Rodolfo that he should burn his work and throw away his paintbrush. Dejected, Rodolfo leaves his painting on the sidewalk. Mimi picks it right back up again and follows him, quietly certain that this depression will pass and that Rodolfo will try again another day.
La Vie de Boheme (Blu-ray) sports a strong 1080p/1.85:1 transfer that highlights the film's naturalistic black-and-white cinematography. The approach works well for the scrappy, unglamorous world Kaurismaki presents, and detail is strong throughout. It's been said before, but black-and-white cinematography shot on film really does have a richness to it that digital B&W can't quite match. Depth is impressive, as is shadow delineation. The DTS HD 1.0 Master Audio track is crisp and clean. Music is used quite sparingly in the film, but makes a big impact whenever it appears. Sound design is kept to a minimum. Supplements include the exceptional retrospective documentary "Where is Musette?" (50 minutes), a 12-minute interview with Andre Wilms, a booklet featuring an essay by Luc Sante and a DVD copy.
La Vie de Boheme is minor Kaurismaki, but a fine, funny, elegiac effort nonetheless. Worth a look for fans of the director or the source material.
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