Romantic as a Caterpillar (Financial Times 12/28/02)

The great cinema directors bequeath great moments to us. Cinephiles have their Bresson moments, their Renoir moments, and, moving closer to the present day, their Scorsese and Woody Allen moments. Aki Kaurismäki, the Finnish director whose Cannes-garlanded Man Without a Past opens in London in the new year, has already provided us with plenty of those cinematic epiphanies that become lodged in the viewer’s mind.

Such as: The precisely-filmed and edited assembly line ballet mechanique at the beginning of Match Factory Girl, Kaurismäki’s chilling 1989 study of a life of quiet desperation, as his camera methodically leads us through the mind-numbing process by which matches are boxed and labeled, before panning to the blank visage of factory worker Kati Outenan, a sequence that somehow presages the tragedy to come. Or shocking moments, such as the one in which the despondent Outenen, in the same film, receives a typed four-word note from the heartless Finish yuppie who has made her pregnant, in response to a long emotive letter from her own pen, telling her to “Get Rid Of It” and we see, in the next shot, the face of a killer. Or soaring ones, such as the final scene in Drifting Clouds, Kaurismäki’s 1996 ode to sisu — “The peculiarly Finnish quality that translates roughly as perseverance” — about an unemployed Finnish couple’s decision to start their own restaurant, in which the couple, played by Kari Vaannen and Kati Outenen (again) realize that their quixotic venture will be a success and, with their dog cradled in their arms, look skyward in thanks, to the lulling accompaniment of the title song.

Or deliciously Dadaistic moments, such as the one in Man Without a Past, in which the movie’s amnesiac hero, finding himself locked in a bank vault after a robbery, asks the bank teller whether she would mind if he smoked (as one might expect, there is a lot of smoking in Kaurismäki’s films), to which the latter replies, “Does a tree mourn its fallen leaves?” as if it were the most logical response in the world.

Man, arguably Kaurismäki’s most accessible work (i.e., non-Fennophiles welcome, too) thus far is the story of a metal factory worker who travels to Helsinki to find work, only to be beaten senseless, robbed, and left for dead by a group of thugs. On the verge of expiring in hospital, M, as he is called, suddenly sits bolt upright and staggers outdoors, where he collapses again by the harbourside, like a piece of driftwood. Discovered and revived by a hobo family, the despairing M has no clue as to who he is. However, with the aid of his new friends, the love of a Salvation Army worker Outenen, who won the Best Actress aware at Cannes, a trusty dog (yes, another one) named Hannibal, and a knack for rhythm and blues, M uses his predicament to forge a new life for himself, as well as a hot new band. Successfully creating a world within the peculiarities of Finnish culture, especially the Finish deadpan (I think I saw Outenen smile once in Man), while resoundingly sounding such universal themes as the need for love, pride, and the worth of the individual in an increasingly bureaucratized world, Man may well be Kaurismäki’s masterwork.

Kaurismäki — who lives in Finland for half the year, including summers, when he is based in the small south-western Finnish town of Karkilla — fills many of the smaller roles in his films with his non-actor friends, who spend months practicing their scenes. These friends include his dogs, who have starred in his last four films — the late Laika in La Vie Bohéme, and Pietari, Piita, and Tahti (as Hannibal) in Man Without a Past, expertly playing the dramatic or comic foil that their part required. Of course, they had no choice in the matter. “I have three dogs and they have to act for their food,” says the director in the mock-gruff manner of his characters, during the course of our smoke-filled interview at Oiva, the charming small hotel he owns and runs in Karkilla on the site of a former old age home. The presence nearby of several of his friends, some of whom are recognizable from his films, enhance the sense that one has drifted on to the set of a Kaurismäki film.

I ask the laconic 45-year-old if he was surprised by the award at Cannes, as the hostess brings over the first of a succession of Lapin Culta beers. A devout nationalist, Kaurismäki only drinks the local brew. “No,” says Kaurismäki, who directed his first feature, Crime and Punishment, an adaptation of the Dosteovsky film set in modern-day Helsinki, in 1985. Even with the new honour, I point out, he is hardly a household name.

“I am already known enough,” he says. “In fact, I am already too well known for my own taste” — a fact that I can attest to by hearing the phones ring off the hook at the Helsinki offices of his production company, Sputnik Oy. There, earlier, his long-time managing director, Haije Tulokas, had confessed to me that in a country that is virtually owned by Nokia, she had only recently succeeded in persuading Kaurismäki to purchase a mobile phone. Nor, for that matter, are there any mobiles in Kaurismäki’s films.

“There is no poetry in a mobile,” he says flatly, in between cigarette bursts; like most of the characters in his films, and many Finns, he is a heavy smoker. “In fact,” he adds, I would be happy if all technological development had stopped in 1962.” Why 1962? “Because that was the year my Cadillac was made.” (Kaurismäki owns two Cadillacs, both from the early 1960s.)

In Man Without a Past, there are many references to “The Chain”, the faceless company that putatively owns most of Finland. Did “The Chain” represent Nokia, I wondered, hoping for a clearer exposition of the Kaurismäki social philosophy. “No –anyway, 90 percent of Nokia is owned by the Yankee doodle dandies.” Besides, he adds impishly, he has used only Ericsson phones in his movies.

To Kaurismäki’s evident relief, our conversation shifts to filmmaking, where he is somewhat more forthcoming. We speak of the late, great Matti Pellonpaa, who acted or starred in all of Kaurismäki’s films — until the walrus-faced actor, who had been a heavy drinker, died in 1995, just as production for Drifting Clouds, which he had written with Pellonpaa in mind, had begun. “He was my best friend and my best actor,” he says, still visibly pained by the loss. “Instead, I turned the movie [Drifting clouds] upside down and gave Matti’s role to Kati, who ran away with it, as she did with Man Without a Past.

“Kati is as great an actress as Matti was an actor,” he says, turning loquacious — for Kaurismäki — “and just as important, she is a woman. The most important thing about actors is presence. You can be as talented as hell, but if the camera doesn’t love you, it doesn’t ever love you. The camera loves Kati — and she takes advantage of that.”

One of the most striking elements of Man, as with Kaurismäki’s other films, is his use of rich, saturated colours. Another signature feature is his lavish use of music, not as an accoutrement but as a plot element unto itself. As in Drifting Clouds and Match Factory Girl, there are long scenes in which the only thing that is happening is the music, in this case, the hypnotic music of Poulatakaat, the Finnish neo-traditional band who M exposes to rhythm and blues with the aid of a jukebox that handily comes with the storage compartment he makes his home. There also are a lot of jukeboxes in Kaurismäki’s films. Kaurismäki lights another cigarette, as a gust of Olavi Virta, the great 1950s Finnish singer, wafts out of a suspiciously familiar-looking Wurlitzer.

“In my films I have a habit of using music instead of dialogue. It does the same job. I have always respected Wim Wenders for the fact that he respects music enough not to fade away or cut away stupidly.”

And which other contemporary directors did he respect? Not many. Pedro Almódovar — the director with whom he is most often compared? “A great director — and a cool guy,” says Kaurismäki, whose company distributes the Spaniard’s films in Finland. “[Jim] Jarmusch, of course.” And that was it? “Most directors use 90 percent of their energy to dress themselves for the shooting. They would have a very good career with L’Oreal.” Once one opens the file to include past directors whom Kaurismäki respects, the list becomes considerably longer. Asked to write these out, Kaurismäki furiously scribbles out a long list including Bunuel, Vigo, Bresson, Walsh, Ozu, Kurosawa, Powell, Bergman, and more than 30 other names.

Asked to list his 10 best films of all time, he insists on writing two lists, one of the 10 best, and another of the 10 most beautiful. Just for the record, Kaurismäki’s 10 best films are: Citizen Kane, Vertigo, 8 1/2 , Red Shoes, Body and Soul, Brethless, La Cercle Rouge, Rio Bravo, and The Public Enemy. Interesting group, I remark, all of which, in their own way, could be called romantic. Was he a romantic after all? “I am — as romantic as a caterpillar.”

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