What links the maverick Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki and Puccini, the famous Italian opera composer? Not an obvious question, I must confess! The answer is they both produced works based on the 19th century novel Scènes de la vie de bohème by Henri Murger.
Aki Kaurismäki, a screenwriter and film director, has been making films since 1981. His singular take on cinema has long been a breath of fresh air in an industry dominated by the homogenised, sanitised and commercialised product that comes out of Hollywood. As Kaurismäki once said, “Hollywood has melted everyone's brains”.
He prefers to focus on working class characters. And it’s no accident that they are usually outcasts, drifters and loners. The ‘hidden people’, as he describes them, usually neglected or patronised by mainstream cinema. But rather than adopting a straightforward social realist perspective, or sentimentalising his characters, Kaurismäki deploys a distinctively minimalist style and bleak sense of humour to tell his stories. Featuring mannered acting and laconic dialogue, once seen, the films sit in your mind for ever.
He’s carved out an idiosyncratic path in cinema. As he put it, “I tried to go to film school, but they wouldn't let me in. They said I was too cynical.”
Some critics find the gloomy fatalism and eccentricities of narrative and character hard to fathom. But he doesn’t let his pessimism about the greed that degrades society or the poor prospects for the future of humanity dominate his films. They’re suffused with a sharp-edged social critique of the alienation that defines many peoples’ existence and a strong sense of empathy for his characters as they grapple with life’s disappointments. And the deadpan sensibility surely makes him a worthy heir to Buster Keaton!
He’s made many fine films over the years. Shadows in Paradise, Hamlet Goes Business and Drifting Clouds spring to mind. But I’m going to focus briefly on just one, the lesser known "La Vie de Boheme". Released in 1992, it’s a wonderfully laid back example of his craft. A free adaptation of the story of three impoverished artists living the bohemian life in Paris, the film features a brilliant trio of Kaurismäki regulars: André Wilms, Matti Pellonpää, and Karl Väänänen as a writer, painter, and composer. In a city apparently set permanently on the edge of winter, the film mixes heart-breaking drama with considerable black humour.
The film pokes fun at the bohemian lifestyle. But it also mocks the conventions of art, as well as celebrating the main characters’ refusal to play by the rules of polite society. Marcel, the writer, has had his 21-act play rejected because he refuses to take out a semicolon. Rodolfo, the painter, an illegal immigrant from Albania, struggles to sell his rather lacklustre work. While Schaunard, the composer, is in the middle of creating something enigmatically called "The Influence of Blue on Art." But even his friends can’t bear to listen to his new sonata, Traffic Jam.
Despite their hand-to-mouth existence, they do reap occasional good fortune. Marcel is taken on by an irascible publisher (played by legendary American director Sam Fuller) to edit his literary magazine. Though is soon sacked when he uses it as an opportunity to publish his play. While Rodolfo is commissioned to do a portrait by a wealthy industrialist (Jean-Pierre Leaud). But the money is soon dissipated on fine food and wine.
The women in the film, the tubercular Mimi (Evelyne Didi) and Musette (Christine Murillo), exist in the reflected light of the men they love. But Kaurismäki doesn’t sentimentalise or demean them. And Mimi’s death at the end is treated with considerable sensitivity. Like the men, they are victims of circumstances.
Oh, and there’s a dog called Baudelaire! The main model for Rodolfo’s somewhat uninspired portraits.
The film is shot in black and white. This suits the downbeat feel of the story. It’s a finely crafted tragicomedy which subverts the conventions of the art world and bourgeois society. Kaurismäki has evident sympathy for his characters. They scrape by together, enduring life’s absurdities, because of their faith in themselves, their stubbornness and their ability to share what little they have.
There’s a particularly Finnish sense of melancholy that permeates Kaurismäki’s films. But his characters face their problems with quiet resolve as they contemplate the absurdity of existence. Kaurismäki's work may be regarded by some as an acquired taste. But, as La Vie de Boheme demonstrates, his films never pander to ‘good taste’ or fall into unremitting despair. As Samuel Beckett once wrote, “You must go on. I can't go on. I'll go on.”