The Humanists: Aki Kaurismäki’s La Vie de Bohème


by Colin Marshall

Do even lovers of world cinema think much about Finland’s working class? Does Aki Kaurismäki think about much else? Clearly, when not thinking about Finland’s working class, he thinks about world cinema, even going so far as to produce a short film thanking Yasujirō Ozu for his influence. “So far I’ve made eleven lousy films,” the Finn says to a pair of portraits of the Japanese master, “and I’ve decided to make another thirty, because I refuse to go to my grave until I have proved to myself that I’ll never reach your level, Mr. Ozu.”

But Kaurismäki has reached Ozu’s level, at least by one particularly objective measure: drinking. Both filmmakers have gone on record measuring out their lives by number of glasses and bottles emptied. While Ozu and his collaborator Kōgo Noda might famously have put away 180 liters of sake in the process of writing each and every script, their films usually focused on characters who might only indulge in a couple rounds after work. Ozu’s people tend to operate under a slow but steady upward mobility, albeit one that sends subtly devastating waves through their long-established but delicate familial relationships. Kaurismäki’s people, who might easily drink instead of working, can count themselves lucky to have any kind of relationships at all.

In Finland as Kaurismäki uses it, you might just as well call the working class the drinking class. When he leaves his homeland for La Vie de Bohème, a part of that simple formula goes missing: the French playwright Marcel, the Albanian painter Rodolfo, and the Irish composer Schaunard want to create and want to find women, but above all, they want not to work. At the point the film begins, getting jobs seems to have transcended the position of priority in their lives to become the unquestioned foundational principle of their lives. Though neither successful nor prosperous by any common definitions of the words, they nevertheless hold themselves up higher than, say, the still-teetering wreckages in the Kaurismäki-influenced Helsinki segment of Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth. As members of what you could call the non-working class, they skirt the standard set of human obligations with a kind of… style.

No wonder, then, that Kaurismäki set the movie in Paris, a city that even those who know little about it probably think of as the last word in habitats for the discerning layabout. Yet he came to find, of course, that the choice wasn’t quite his to make; after grinding away at adapting Henry Murger’s Scènes de la vie de bohème to the streets of his Helsinki — whether the director’s view of the city warrants the phrase “his beloved Helsinki” remains a matter of debate — Kaurismäki supposedly found that only Paris could host these particular stories. And so, as a result of the special brand of combined open-minded stubbornness and hard-laboring laziness at work here, we viewers find ourselves watching a mostly Finnish cast acting all this out on Parisian streets — with some important players who, lacking so much as a word of French, rely on phonetic memorization.

The freshly evicted Marcel carries, with what must be no small strain, the forbiddingly thick manuscript of his 21-act play. Rodolfo, looking at all times far more hangdog than his canine companion Baudelaire, paints large, stern, yet naïve-looking portraits while hoping that nobody will ask to see his nonexistent visa. Schaunard, who promptly claims Marcel’s semi-vacant apartment, toils over piano-based pieces the recreate the sounds of a traffic jam — all the sounds of a traffic jam. These fellows band together in their own informal way, making a team effort to keep one another in life’s refined pleasures while dedicating themselves to the subforms of art they’ve fashioned for themselves.

Marcel, Rodolfo, and Schaunard all have a certain drive, but a drive that sits askew. Coming into sudden money as a literary journal’s guest editor, Marcel wastes little time getting himself cast off by using the position to serialize his play — up to and including all 21 acts, presumably. Too impoverished to offer the promised drinks to a lady he’s invited up, Rodolfo assures her not to worry; “I have soup.” (He then starts chopping a gnarled potato.) Given a few bills to further the common cause, Schaunard runs out and buys an automobile, specifically a shapeless, three-wheeled, contraption somehow simultaneously evocative of darkest communism and a perpetual provocation of audience laughter in its every onscreen appearance.

The Paris on glaringly high-contrast black-and-white display here — a succession of Spartan flats, low-rent coffee houses, and cartoonishly alley-like alleys where each season ushers in a new variety of winter — draws comparisons not to other depictions of Paris but to depictions of Helsinki. Apparently you can take the auteur out of Finland, but you can’t… etc., etc. As much as this straitened setting and the gloom of the source material might get you expecting a slice of punishing life, Kaurismäki’s sense of humor, a sort of perverse cheeriness with an edge of absurdism, cuts through even the most thickly self-imposed despair. Thus he generously spikes the melodrama you’d find in a reading of La Vie de Bohème, and even more so the kind you’d find in an evening with the film’s operatic cousin.

I hesitate to hold up any one creator as a representative of his country, but this peculiar sensibility hasn’t gone unknown in Finnish cinema. Under a surface saturated by a bleakness that would surely drive other cultures to implosion, Finnish film conceals a core that I’d call smirking if it didn’t seem so devoid of the self-regard that smirking implies. You might organize Finnish filmmakers by the means with which they accomplish this concealment. Critics tend to find Kaurismäki’s techniques more striking than most, and if he’s cultivated one skill over the production of all his “lousy movies,” he’s cultivated a painstaking affectlessness — or, more specifically, an obscuring of affect. You can see and hear it in a thousand small ways, this picture’s unorthodox use of the French language being one of the most obvious.

No matter how harsh they look he uses — and La Vie de Bohème looks one of the harshest — Kaurismäki’s films spend a great deal of time and concentration simply examining faces. Marcel’s expresses, through its sharp angles, both great weariness and an infinite reserve of just enough will to execute the next improbable scheme. Rodolfo’s deep black hair and mustache, the first of which terminates in an unnaturally straight line and the latter of which seems pulled downward by a force stronger than gravity, finish a look that at once marks him out as a slickster and cancels that out with an overwhelming dose of disingenuousness. Though the man himself maintains the bearing of the supremely confident, Schaunard’s features don’t appear to know when to be soft and when to be hard. This isn’t the first time someone has made a point of Kaurismäki’s use of faces — it’s probably not the ten thousandth time — but by combining despondence, resilience, lightness, gravity, high-mindedness, and low-appetitedness with utter disregard for any possible boundaries between them, they emblematize the weathered anti-melodrama that has, rightly, become Kaurismäki’s brand.

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