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Apparently it is indeed possible for a filmmaker in an out-of-the-way Scandinavian country to make his mark without kowtowing to the commercial edicts of Hollywood. Aki Kaurismäki has been charming audiences and taking home international awards for 25 years; he reportedly turned down an invitation to a New York film festival in protest against the Iraq war. Eclipse's twelfth DVD series release collects three pictures known as Aki Kaurismäki's Proletariat Trilogy. Despite the title, Communism is not the issue. The films apply a slightly absurd sense of humor to the stifled hopes and quiet desperation of a number of working-class Finns. Either unemployed or stuck in mind-deadening jobs, Kaurismäki's characters know quite well that society doesn't give a damn about them.
Shadows in Paradise (Varjoja paratiisissa) (1986) gives us an abrupt introduction to Kaurismäki's bleak vision of Finland. Garbage collector Nikkander (Matti Pellonpáá) works like a zombie. A buddy talks about starting his own collecting company so he can die behind a desk instead of the wheel of a garbage truck, but that pipe dream doesn't work out. Nikkander eventually finds a kind of hope with Ilona (Kati Outinen), even though both of them have had it so bad that they're almost ridiculously distrustful of relationships. Ilona loses her position as a cashier, knowing that her manager has gotten rid of her to make way for his daughter who is just graduating school. The only way to get a job in this city is for someone else to be fired or die.
Many scenes are staged in simple master shots. A short scene may be only one cut. Kaurismäki's style differs from that of Jim Jarmusch in that his characters are neither caricatures nor hipster posers, but ordinary working people struggling against loneliness and an indifferent world. Finns are apparently not fans of idle chatter: conversation is so sparse that the films have been compared to silent movies. Typical sequence: Ilona's workmate, in a dull voice, suggests that they go out together to have some fun. Kaurismäki cuts to the two women sitting, bored, in a booth in a cheap café, with loud music playing. These people have grown hard emotional shells, just to survive.
As if tuned to the characters' suppressed inner spirits, the soundtracks of the trilogy abound in music, especially Scandinavian rock and Tango vocals. Nikkander drinks in his off hours but he also attends English classes. Finding an LP record in a trash heap, he suddenly decides to buy a stereo to play it on. These lonely souls find comfort where they can, and an absurdist worldview is a helpful personal resource.
Ilona in Shadows in Paradise flirts with petty theft, but the hero of Ariel (1988) drifts toward criminal activity without ever losing our sympathy. Thrown out of work by the closing of a mine, Laplander Taisto (Turo Pajala) is bequeathed a vintage white Cadillac by his father, just before the old man kills himself. Making his way south to Helsinki, Taisto is robbed of his savings. Work is hard to come by. He meets an equally grim meter maid named Irmeli (Susanna Haavisto) when she tickets his car. Taisto and Irmeli become instant, if solemn, lovers. She announces immediately that she's divorced and has a boy, fully expecting a quick rejection. Instead, Taisto promises a lifetime of devotion. Conventional courtship is apparently too emotionally risky to indulge in anything fanciful -- not even a smile. Unjustly imprisoned, Taisto is heartened when Irmeli remains committed to him. Together with his cellmate Mikkonen (Matti Pellonpáá: again), Taisto busts out of jail and prepares to commit a robbery to pay for a passage to Mexico.
The fact that Kaurismäki's characters are so undemonstrative with their emotions actually increases our involvement. Taisto quietly accepts every miserable setback, lashing out only when taunted by a prison guard. Irmeli takes the measure of Taisto in a minute. Taisto and Mikkonen cement a solid relationship over a single cigarette. Irmeli has put herself deeply in debt to furnish a halfway pleasant apartment that contrasts sharply with the miserable rooms elsewhere in Kaurismäki's films. She risks all to free her man from jail. These people are making difficult decisions the best way they know how.
Kaurismäki's Finns cherish occasional totems of American consumer culture, always with the awareness that a comfortable standard of living will probably always be out of reach. Their silent refusal to cave in to despair adds to the absurdist sense of humor. Ariel has a couple of inspired comedy moments, but there's also something warmly humorous in the resolve to keep going in life no matter how dismal the details. The convertible top on Taisto's Cadillac won't go up, leaving him freezing as he motors south through the snow. The sun rarely shines, but these Finns never give up.
The conclusions of both Shadows in Paradise and Ariel give Kaurismäki's downtrodden characters a chance for happiness. Not so with The Match Factory Girl (Tulitikkutehtaan tytt&oulm;), a transposition of Hans Christian Andersen's sentimental tragedy The Little Match Girl. Unlike the experienced working women of Kaurismäki's first two stories, the unfortunate Iris (the marvelous Kati Outinen again) has unguarded illusions about human nature. Instead of selling matches on the street, Iris makes them in a factory. But society's cruel indifference is much the same.
The lonely Iris would like the kind of romance found in paperback novels, but must support her mother and stepfather, who treat her harshly and demand obedience in all things. She rebels by spending her earnings on a red dress, and using it to find a man. Picked up by a well-heeled bachelor on the prowl for an easy conquest, Iris finds herself brutalized from all sides. Her parents tell her to live somewhere else. Iris's utter isolation is confirmed when she attempts to share her problem with a co-worker. "You don't say", the girl remarks, and abruptly walks away.
Kaurismäki never indulges a maudlin tone. Iris cries herself to sleep at night and even attempts suicide, but in the end refuses to play the role of victim. Her eventual determination to take an extreme revenge on the world seems entirely logical: denied love and facing rejection, Iris strikes back, and we're on her side all the way. When her eyes start to go "dead", we understand the disillusion and adversity that go into the making of Kaurismäki's working-class Finns.
A look at Ari Kaurismäki's other films reveals his more directly satirical, pop-oriented side. Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses is one title. An early short subject called Rocky VI is a direct lampoon of Sylvester Stallone's boorishly jingoistic Rocky movies. But this trilogy about hope-challenged Finns is an impressive accomplishment, a positive contribution to understanding how most people make their way in the modern world economy.
Eclipse's Aki Kaurismäki's Proletariat Trilogy 3-DVD set presents the short features (average running time: 72 minutes) in clean, handsome enhanced transfers. The colors are dark and rich, befitting a land where bright daylight is apparently the exception. We never see anyone outdoors wearing less than a jacket and the director pointedly includes shots of icy slush on the streets and ice floating in the harbor. The clear soundtrack showcases the many spirited music cues; the Finns seem particularly fond of Tangos. For an upbeat finish, Ariel concludes with Harold Arlen's Somewhere Over the Rainbow -- sung in Suomi, the Finnish language.
For more information about Aki Kaurismäki's Proletariat Trilogy, visit The Criterion Collection.To order Aki Kaurismäki's Proletariat Trilogy, go to TCM Shopping.
by Glenn Erickson