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Three of Kaurismäki's major films from 1984-1990 in a convenient US release
on January 23, 2012
With this box set, the Criterion Collection has brought together for American audiences three 1980s films by Aki Kaurismäki. With a label like "Proletariat Trilogy", one might expect a political message, but the first two films are focused on interpersonal relationships, and only the third is politically overt. This is part of Criterion's Eclipse series, a budget line which lacks commentary or other extras, but the three films are presented in a lovely transfer and have quality English subtitles.
Seeing these three films as a trilogy doesn't really make sense. What they have in common is lower-class characters ignored by the system, 1950s decor and music even though they are ostensibly set in the present day, and some amount of violence and deadpan humour. But in fact, these features are found in nearly all of Kaurismäki's work over the last three decades, and not at all unique to these efforts from 1984, 1986 and 1990 respectively.
VARJOJA PARATIISISSA (Shadows in Paradise) is one of the most idiosyncratic romantic comedies of all time. The painfully shy Nikander (Matti Pellonpää), a garbage man, means the moody Ilona, a supermarket checkout girl. The film tracks their bumbling attempt to establish a lasting relationship: dates that end as soon as they've begun, a romantic getaway where they each retreat to separate hotel rooms, and rare conversations which employ the absolute bare minimum of words. Nikander's best and only friend Melartin (Sakari Kuosmanen), whom the garbage man only recently met through a spell in jail, gives some needed encouragement. VARJOJA PARATIISISSA will touch your heart and make you laugh just as much as it weirds you out.
ARIEL is centered around the trials and tribulations of former miner Taisto Kasurinen (Turo Pajala), who heads for the big city after his mine is shut down. Once he reaches Helsinki, he starts a typically Kaurismakian (and typically Finnish) love affair with Irmeli (Susanna Haavisto), but stable employment proves elusive. Eventually Taisto winds up in jail, and his escape with cellmate Mikkonen (Matti Pellonpää) drives the remainder of the film. This film is zany, but a curious kind of zany that only Kaurismäki could have come up with, and has a bittersweet ending.
TULITIKKUTEHTAAN TYTTÖ (The Match Factory Girl), something of an arthouse triumph in the US, is very different from the earlier two films. Its protagonist Iris (Kati Outinen), a taciturn 20-something who still lives with, and financially supports, her layabout parents (Elina Salo, Esko Nikkari). Iris has no real social life to speak of, being ignored by co-workers and, at her nightly excursions to dance halls, by men. After meeting wealthy businessman Aarne (Vesa Vierikko), she thinks she has found happiness, but is cruelly abandoned by him and then her parents. Though she doesn't visibly snap, the pressures take their toll, and she gets her revenge on those who have done her wrong...
As TULITIKKUTEHTAAN TYTTÖ progresses, radio and television in the background report the news of Chinese government forces suppressing the protest in Tiananmen Square. That overt political focus is something rather unusual for Kaurismäki. He has usually included some criticism of state bureaucracy in his films, but here the film is entirely a metaphor for what might happen if the people are held down too hard and too long. This is my least favourite of the three films, as it is almost invariably bleak and mainly lacks the funny moments of the Finnish director's other work.
Three films are not the best of auteur cinema that I've seen, in that at their best they are "merely" entertaining instead of life-changing, but nonetheless I'd recommend them to a wide audience. The first two films are sure to appeal to just about anyone, especially through the humour that Matti Pellonpää brings and Kati Outinen's quirky face. Plus, those first two films depict Finland's inhabitants in a pretty realistic fashion and might offer some insight into the mentality of this nation of moody binge drinkers. And though I didn't enjoy it as much, even TULITIKKUTEHTAAN TYTTÖ seems to have its audience.