Shadows in Paradise
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When we first met Aki Kaurismaki, in 1989 when Ariel had its run as probably the first Finnish film to play theatrically in America since Jorn Donner's Portraits of Women (1970), we more or less fell in love. Lost in the hollow skull of the Reagan-Bush '80s-'90s, suffering the ascension of Spielberg and Ivan Reitman and Shane Black, wondering what remote atoll international art cinema had escaped to, and more or less completely ignorant of Finnish life, we had every reason to embrace this last of the red hot deadpan existentialists, whose films somehow altered the cellular structure of working-class depression and turned it into cool comedy. His distinctively bittersweet dyspepsia established Kaurismaki, in a thick run of dryly hilarious films that included Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989), The Match Factory Girl (1990) and La Vie de Boheme (1992), as a new arthouse brand name, a kind of vodka-weary Bresson-meets-Tati.
Sourpuss provocateur, Scandinavian down-and-outer, renowned boozician, Jim Jarmusch compatriot, Kaurismaki has seen his window of international fashionability open wide and slowly close. In the last decade, his The Man without a Past (2002), Lights in the Dusk (2006) and Le Havre (2011) made it onto American screens, but the ardor he received from arthouse audiences and critics alike has dimmed, if only because imported cinema as a whole has shrunk even more as an important slice of the American cultural scene. All the while, Kaurismaki's ugly, bittersweet hipness, born of forgotten jukeboxes, cigarette trances, mopey inarticulateness, and outskirt wage slavery, hasn't much changed - for him, grim melodrama and toast-dry farce aren't extremes to be cocktailed; they're already intimate vicinities. Watching Kaurismaki movies -- which rarely exceed 90 minutes in length -- you may guffaw when no one else on Earth would, and vice-versa. As that notion suggests, Kaurismaki has had a powerful influence on an entire generation of indie filmmakers - after watching the key Kaurismakis, the various ironic deadpan affects of Jarmusch, Wes Anderson, Guy Maddin, Todd Solondz, early Jane Campion and the Coens make the great Finn look like the grandfather of an entire school of turn-of-the-century style.
He made two films - a cold-hearted Helsinki version of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment (1983) and the outrageously absurdist Calamari Union (1985) - before establishing his distinctive laugh-or-cry balance and semi-Socialist footing with Shadows in Paradise (1986), the first of a loose and so-called "trilogy" later completed by Ariel and The Match Factory Girl. (Kaurismaki, a wickedly dyspeptic personality who claims only to make his completely uncommercial movies for money, would never cop to anything as pretentious as a trilogy.) A relatively soft-edged tragi-romance, Shadows unites Kaurismaki axiom Matti Pellonpaa, as an implacable garbage-man, and Match Factory's Kati Outinen as a kohl-eyed store clerk, two inexpressive Everyschmucks from modern Europe's dingiest backwater, happening onto each other and launching tentatively, inexpressively, into an affair, trying to make a life together.
"Trying" may be too strong a word - in Kaurismaki's films, part of the sad, cosmic comedy derives from the sense that the characters' options are already spent, their life energy is all but used up, and that they go through the motions of life out of habit and a residue of preposterous hope. From the word go, the film's protagonists are battling their low economic stations as desperately as any noir hero - but instead of fuming and sweating they stare, bottled up and lost in dead-end thought. In fact, Kaurismaki is as ardent a student of pulp film and nostalgic American culture as Quentin Tarantino, and his characters follow a classic film noir track: Outinen's testy galago-faced blonde gets laid off, steals a cash box loaded with markka, and the two awkward would-be lovers hit the road, if in an ironic cloud of radio rockabilly. (Vestiges of America are everywhere: music, blue jeans, habitually smoked Marlboros.) It's part of Kaurismaki's brilliance that he is both devilishly ironic and stealthily earnest and poignant - every aspect of Shadows in Paradise, from the title to the casting (conspicuously, the romantic leads are the least attractive people in the film) to the final Hollywood parting shot, can be read as either ant-farm comedy or sublimated melodrama, though ideally they all should be read as both, as a balancing act in which every scene is a mystery, a test of the perhaps negligible distance between empathy and heartlessness, between joy and misery. Here, if you happened to be looking, is the frontier crossing station between Robert Bresson's unemotive tribulations and Buster Keaton's stonefaced schtick.
For a noir romance, Shadows is neither very noirish nor terribly romantic, but a conscientiously flatfooted investigation into what those genre impulses mean to us. The film's dispirited texture is its trump card - and credit must go to the global-fest-fave Pellonpaa, introduced here as Kaurismaki's signature actor and iconic Finnish nowhere man, lending the filmmaker's movies a walrusy, still-gazed melancholy that's unforgettable. (He appeared in 17 more of Kaurismaki's films, but surprisingly, Pellonpaa wasn't a cabbie or dockworker Kaurismaki found and stuck in his films, but was already a veteran of dozens of Finnish films, TV shows and radio plays who began acting professionally as a teen.) Deceptively simple, Shadows is a minor-key masterpiece, but every Kaurismaki film feels like a blessing, as he balances a rueful gallows humor with genuine sympathy for his near-catatonic people, and creates a visual sensibility so rigorous and unpatronizing that it musters metaphoric notions about the meaning of human life and about socioeconomic injustice without lifting a finger.
Because they are all mercilessly of a piece, every Kaurismaki film is required viewing (but not, I'd advise, in mass quantities). They all have the relaxed, expert air of master blues riffs, existing for no better reason than Kaurismaki's movie madness and weathered humanism. He even returned, more or less, to Shadows' drained characters in Drifting Clouds (1996), a kind of fatalistic semi-sequel in which we see the dour couple years down the road slammed by economic downturn. It's as tough-skinned and heartbreaking as any film ever made about joblessness, but made also as a sort of elegy for Pellonpaa, who could not reprise his role after dying from a heart attack in 1995, at the age of 44.
Producer: Mika Kaurismaki
Director: Aki Kaurismaki
Screenplay: Aki Kaurismaki
Cinematography: Timo Salminen
Editing: Raija Talvio
Art Direction: Pertti Hilkamo, Heikki Ukkonen
Cast: Matti Pellonpaa (Nikander), Kati Outinen (Ilona), Kylli Kongas (Ilona's Girlfriend), Sakari Kuosmanen (Melartin), Esko Nikkari (workmate).
by Michael Atkinson