The Deadpan Cinema of Aki Kaurismaki

Yesterday, Finnish film director Aki Kaurismaki celebrated his 62nd birthday. He is regarded as one of the finest filmmakers currently active in world cinema. His droll and idiosyncratic films situate him as a distinct and uncompromising filmmaker.

The Deadpan Cinema of Aki Kaurismaki The Deadpan Cinema of Aki Kaurismaki Source : Pyramid Productions

Film critic Andrew Mann relates an anecdote about Aki Kaurismaki in his review of The Man Without a Past, 2002 for the LA Weekly. He tells of an incident that occurred at the Cannes International Film Festival in May 2002. It makes evident four stories that are ever present in Kaurismaki's filmmaking and films, as well as in the discourse that comprises the filmmaker as a public figure - Kaurismaki the auteur, Kaurismaki the bohemian, Kaurismaki the nostalgic, and Kaurismaki the Finn. When Kaurismaki took the stage at Cannes in May to receive his Grand Jury Prize, aka ‘second place', he stopped first by jury president David Lynch and whispered something that put a look of alarm on the director's face. The most consistent story is that Kaurismaki muttered, ‘As Hitchcock said, "Who the hell are you?"' Many, apparently Kaurismaki included, thought he would be taking the Palme d'Or.

At the same time as Kaurismaki derides cinema as commerce, his films have embraced elements of the same commercial cinema, with their B-movie look, sentimental themes and expressions, and many allusions to popular music and culture. The ‘rock-n-roll' music and motif are in every film. Ariel (1988), Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989), Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses (1994) and Kaurismaki's music-video shorts are pastiches including plenty of Hollywood cliché.

From the beginning of his career, Kaurismaki's work has exhibited fascination with bohemian characters, whether the absurd author Ville Alfa in his screenplay for The Liar (1981), the unconventional artists of Calamari Union (1985), the criminals that surround Taisto in Ariel, Henri in I Hired a Contract Killer (1990), or the homeless characters in The Man Without A Past. What is more, Kaurismaki has often told the story of his entry into filmmaking and his subsequent career with bohemian tropes: kicked out of the army, homeless, scores of jobs, poor, devoted to his art, an underground filmmaker, micro-budgeted productions, and so on.

Kaurismaki's conflicted relationship to the middle-class concerns both the art market and the political economy of the Finnish welfare state since the 1970s. Mainstream cinema is a commercial form, says Kaurismaki: ‘I love the old Hollywood, but the modern one is just a dead rattlesnake ... I am like a dog always barking about Hollywood because with its power, it could make some really good films. Instead, sixty-year-old men are creating boy-scout level - and boring - violence; crass commercialisation is killing the cinema'. Today ‘there's no sense in mixing up Hollywood and cinema. They're two different things. Hollywood is business, the entertainment business'.

Kaurismaki's symbolic distinction is in part evident in the absence of promulgators of this discourse: officials, the wealthy, and the middle classes in general figure little in the films. ‘They're completely irrelevant; at most they're caricatures who play the fool for a maximum of thirty seconds ... they're just such dull characters, all of them'.

Given the critique of capitalist modernity we identified in sketching Kaurismaki's bohemianism, it is easy to see why his films might also be understood as the construction of an idealised past. Kaurismaki's citation of Hitchcock could be seen as an expression of longing for a lost cinematic past and its great auteurs such as Hitchcock, George Cukor, Howard Hawks, Fritz Lang, Douglas Sirk,and others. This longing can easily be related to the disenchantment with post-classical Hollywood, which we have also observed. Furthermore, Kaurismaki's films offer much evidence of nostalgia in their aesthetics, mise-en-scène, and characters' attitudes. What we have in the insult, then, is also a putative declaration of nostalgia for a bygone film culture.

Many commentators argue that Kaurismaki's characters express a similar affirmation, embracing and endorsing stereotypes of Finnish identity. From this view, the films' characters are modest, industrious, self-restrained, solidarity-minded, and silent, because Finns are.

"Of course, the working class is not such a sexy and commercial subject, I understand from the popcorn audience. But I couldn't write dialogue for upper-class people because I wouldn't know what they say. I don't know if they talk at all. Maybe they are just shopping. And selling and buying stocks. Stocks and stockings. I find rich people boring," Kaurismaki said in an interview to Sydney Morning Herald.

The deadpan ironies of Kaurismaki's films are so funny and idiosyncratic that he has never been marked out as a political filmmaker; his best-known film is still Leningrad Cowboys Go America, an alarmingly crackers road movie about a rockabilly band from the frozen north who all sport gravity-defying quiffs. At the same time, anyone looking past the laughs, the clunky cuts and the Soviet-style set dressing of his films could see that he had certain beliefs about the world.

Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989) is a road movie about the adventures of a fictional Russian rock band (Leningrad Cowboys, consisting of members from the Finnish rock band the Sleepy Sleepers, enlarged with additional musicians) that travels to the United States to become famous. The title came from the Marx Brothers film Go West (1940). Living in Mexico with a top-ten hit under their belts, the Leningrad Cowboys have fallen on hard times. When they head north to rejoin their manager for a gig in Coney Island, he has turned into a self-proclaimed prophet who wishes to lead them back to the promised land of Siberia.

Drifting Clouds (1996) is the first installment of Kaurismaki's Finland trilogy and follows a tram driver who loses his job. Soon after, the restaurant where his wife works as a head waitress is closed. Too proud to receive money from the social welfare system, they strive to find new jobs. But they are completely unlucky and clumsy; one disaster is followed by the next. The film won the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival.

The Man Without A Past (2002) is the second installment in Kaurismaki's Finland trilogy, the other two being Drifting Clouds (1996) and Lights in the Dusk (2006). The film follows a man who arrives in Helsinki and gets beaten up so severely he develops amnesia. Unable to remember his name or anything from his past life, he cannot get a job or an apartment, so he starts living on the outskirts of the city and slowly starts putting his life back on track. Apart from the Grand Prix at Cannes Film Festival, The Man Without A Past was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2002.

Le Havre (2011) is a warmhearted film. Fate throws the young African refugee Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) into the path of Marcel Marx (André Wilms), a kindly old bohemian who shines shoes for a living in the French harbor city Le Havre. With inborn optimism and the support of his tight-knit community, Marcel stands up to the officials doggedly pursuing the boy for deportation. A political fairy tale that exists somewhere between the reality of contemporary France and the classic French cinema of the past, Le Havre is a charming, deadpan delight and one of Kaurismaki's finest films.

The Other Side of Hope (2017) is a wry, melancholic comedy from Aki Kaurismaki, a response to the ongoing global refugee crisis, follows two people searching for a place to call home. Khaled (Sherwan Haji), a displaced Syrian, lands in Helsinki as a stowaway; meanwhile, middle-aged Finnish salesman Wikstrom (Sakari Kuosmanen) leaves his wife and his job and buys a conspicuously unprofitable restaurant. Khaled is denied asylum but decides not to return to Aleppo-and the paths of the two men cross fortuitously. As deadpan as the best of the director's work, and with a deep well of empathy for its down-but-not-out characters, The Other Side of Hope is a bittersweet celebration of pockets of human kindness in an unwelcoming world.

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Reference: Nestingen, Andrew-The cinema of Aki Kaurismaki, Wallflower Press (2013)

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