Judge Dan Mancini don't want no dead end job; he don't wanna be no number.
Maybe my films are not masterpieces, but they are documents of their time. That's enough for me.—Aki Kaurismäki
Outside of art houses, Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki is best known in America for having kicked off a (blessedly) brief fad music group in the '80s with his movie Leningrad Cowboys Go America and, more recently, for turning down an Oscar nomination for The Man Without a Past in protest of the war in Iraq. But Kaurismäki's influence on modern American independent cinema is incalculable. The droll humor, mix of naturalism and absurdity, and emotional detachment that characterizes his style has directly influenced everyone from Jim Jarmusch (Down by Law) to Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums) to countless no-name film-school-educated auteurs who scraped together miniscule budgets and made comedy/dramas packed with as much quirk as they could muster.
A three-disc set released as part of the Criterion Collection's no-frills Eclipse line of boxed sets, Aki Kaurismäki's Proletariat Trilogy presents three of the director's more fascinating films.
Facts of the Case
Shadows in Paradise
The Match Factory Girl
Describing Aki Kaurismäki's comedies as deadpan is a gross understatement. Their humor is predicated on greasy-mulleted, mustachioed Finns with mopey facial features, Members Only jackets, and belly-button high jeans delivering banal dialogue in a flat affect. Kaurisäki's movies almost play as absurdist parodies of Ingmar Bergman's staid, intimate existential dramas. The films comprising the Proletariat Trilogy are funnier than they have any right to be considering their episodic structure, blunt shot selections, dreary settings, and laconic characters.
Nikander and Ilona from Shadows in Paradise are odd romantic leads—ugly but photogenic with receding chins, angular noses, weary eyes, and bad skin. Shadows in Paradise is often described as Kaurismäki's take on the American romantic comedy, and so it is. But Matti Pellonpää and Kati Outinen are exactly the sort of actors who'd never be cast as working class schlubs in Hollywood, where studios are prone to absurdities like casting Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer in the working class romance, Frankie and Johnny. Kaurismäki's casting choices give his films a wash of naturalism despite spare dialogue that mimics the cadences of real speech more than it is actually realistic. It also helps that Outinen and the late Pellonpää are fine actors.
One of the delights of Shadows in Paradise is that it appropriates romantic comedy conventions in unconventional ways. Its rhythms are its own. Though it runs a brief 74 minutes, the movie takes its time introducing the lovers to one another and is equally patient in developing their often strained relationship (one of the film's highlights is a scene in a Bingo parlor that is perhaps the most awkward cinematic first date since Travis Bickle took Betsy to a Times Square porn theater in Taxi Driver). The first third of the movie deals with Nikander's buddy's aspirations to start his own garbage pickup company, to climb out of his dead end job, and to take Nickander along with him. That Nikander passionlessly agrees to go along with the entrepreneurial scheme says much about the aimlessness of his life and his numb acceptance of current circumstance. Like any romantic comedy, Nikander and Ilona find new focus and meaning in life through their relationship with each other. But Kaurismäki's fundamentally unromantic approach to working class realities makes what is almost always trite in Hollywood romantic comedies feel true. There's no sense at the film's finale that Nikander and Ilona's fledgling commitment to one another will solve all of their problems or that they will even success in staying together for long. But there is the sense that their lives aren't as empty and lonely as they once were.
It's unusual, to say the least, for a comedy to kick off with a suicide, but Ariel—the second entry in Kaurismäki's trilogy—does just that. Somehow the director makes a scene in which Taisto's old man cocks a gun and walks into a public bathroom in order to shoot himself droll. The movie plays like Kaurismäki's homage to Italian neorealism, but funny. Taisto's dire economic straits send him into a downward spiral, ultimately hurling him into criminal activity that he never would have considered had he been able to find the modest means to simply survive. Still, there's something undeniably inept and feckless about Taisto that suggests he was, in part, the author of his own fate. A rube of the highest order, he can't seem to hold down a single job, while Irmeli works many in order to provide for herself and her son.
Kaurismäki develops the relationship between Taisto and Irmeli in comic shorthand. "Will you leave in the morning?" she asks after they've had sex only moments, it seems, after meeting (and before knowing each other's names). "No," Taisto replies, "we'll be together forever." And that's that. Pajala and Haavisto play the lovers with less sad sack charm than Pellonpää and Outinen in Shadows in Paradise but they're still quite effective. Pajala spends at least as much time on screen with Pellonpää—who plays a man serving time for manslaughter this time around—as with Haavisto. The two men are a comically incompetent criminal team whose bank robbery near the end of the movie is humorous because of its brevity, absence of action or drama, and their own ineptitude (Taisto exits the bank with a fistful of marks that he can't seem to hang onto). Add in a finale that finds Taisto, Irmela, and her son sailing for freedom in a dinghy to the tune of "Over the Rainbow" sung in Finnish, and there's no denying that Ariel is classic Kaurismäki.
Kaurismäki's loose trilogy turns more dour and dire with The Match Factory Girl. Instead of the previous films' playful examination of the plights of the working classes, Iris's problems feel real and depressingly insurmountable. The shift in perspective from male protagonists in the Shadows in Paradise and Ariel to a female protagonist in The Match Factory Girl proves devastating. Iris's economic and interpersonal straits, pregnancy, and (un)romantic attachment to a callous, self-centered loser who at the beginning of their relationship thought she was a hooker, is heartbreaking and pathetic. Outinen's strong (and mostly silent) performance, large eyes, and homely features only add to the pathos. That she eventually snaps under the mounting pressure of her life is no surprise. Chilling and unnerving, Iris's acts of the revenge offer none of the base satisfaction of the Hollywood revenge fantasies that The Match Factory Girl imitates and parodies.
Collected together as Series 12 in Criterion's Eclipse line, all three movies look great on DVD. The transfers present the films in 1.85:1 anamorphically-enhanced transfers that offer accurate colors, reasonable detail, and perfect reproduction of the source's attractive grain. The images are an impressive digital reproduction of a celluloid look. Shadows in Paradise and Ariel have stereo surround audio tracks, while audio for The Match Factory Girl is single-channel mono. All are fully restored. Dialogue, music, and other ambient sounds are clear, clean, and flawless.
In keeping with the rest of the Eclipse line, the only supplements are brief essays about each film.
Aki Kaurismäki is an acquired taste more likely to appeal to the art house crowd than mainstream audiences. If you're a fan of the director or curious about his work, Criterion's Proletariat Trilogy boxed set is a great place to start.
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