Films by Aki Kaurismäki

We sat down, my wife and I, during a quiet period that could otherwise have been a little gloomy, to watch as many feature films directed by Aki Kaurismäki as we could lay hands on.

We watched them in chronological order, so this could have been an interesting article about the director’s development from his earliest days. But we were geeky enough to mark them out of ten, so what we’ve actually made is a list ranked from our least to most favourite.

These aren’t our first impressions, in most cases – we’ve seen many of these before, some three or four times, but watching them in order with a vaguely critical eye was new and pretty good fun. I should say that we don’t know any Finnish (other than words like raha and miksi? which come up all the time in these films) and watched with English subtitles. We got all of these from the Curzon DVD box set, except for I Hired A Contract Killer which isn’t in it for some reason.

A constant in these films is the cinematographer Timo Salminen who seems to have worked on every one of them. A few more than half are in colour, the rest black-and-white, all analogue film. They’re all beautiful to look at, and since Kaurismäki spends a lot of time just looking at things, that’s certainly fortunate.

I have placed a useful star * next to the names of the films in which the male hero is violently attacked for no reason other than to set up the rest of the film. This Kaurismäki trope is so common that one might as well mark it. I have not specially marked the films in which a cute dog plays a sympathetic role, the films in which the heroes drive around in a car much older than any of the others on the streets, the films that cut away to a complete live performance of a song by a folk or rock ‘n roll band, or the films in which someone impulsively performs an act of great kindness without expecting or receiving any acknowledgement for it.

17. Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses (1994)

Leningrad Cowboys, the worst band in the world, return from the Americas to Europe on the instigation of a man who strangely resembles both their manager and the Biblical Moses.

An admirably uncompromising, funny in places follow-up to Leningrad Cowboys Go America. Quite unnecessary, appropriately stupid, and a bit leaden compared to the first one, but Matti Pellonpää’s commitment to his role as manager and/or Moses is quite something.

16. Juha (1999)

An adaptation of an apparently noted Finnish novel from 1911 in the form of a black-and-white silent movie (with music soundtrack) with film noir stylings and references.

I’m torn about this film. I admire it. I like the way the dialogue and most action in the film is completely silent, but car engines are audible and someone who has been speaking in silence will then burst audibly into song. The music is terrific and there are some superbly shot dramatic scenes.

I like its confusion about its era, as when the silly, soon-to-be-tragic couple (“they were as happy as children”) suddenly switch from serving and eating porridge out of a big pot to heating up a microwave meal, as a symbol of their fall.

I very much like that Marja packs a rubber duck when she moves out.

But the story, setting, and ending felt a bit too miserable for us. Its silence felt as if we’d been left on our own to digest it, which made it feel gloomier.

15. Hamlet Goes Business (1987)

A straight-ish Hamlet, considering it’s a contemporary film about the rubber-duck industry, filmed in super-crisp black-and-white with a terrific ending. Not bad at all.

14. Calamari Union (1985)

This film can’t possibly live up to the summary of its plot: Fifteen desperate men, all called Frank, try to cross Helsinki to reach the fabled Eira district. Most don’t make it.

Their journey is a terrible struggle that takes… months? years? – whereas maps of the real world suggest that Eira is maybe an hour’s walk from where they began.

This was the second Kaurismäki film I ever saw, after Take Care Of Your Scarf, Tatjana!. It’s messy and puzzling in comparison and some of the jokes are a bit too in-joke for my head, but it has a similarly glorious commitment to its idea. We’ve made a note to watch it again soon.

13. Crime and Punishment (1983)

Much more fun than might be expected from an adaptation of a grim Russian novel as the début work by a famously downbeat Finnish director.

12. La Vie de Bohème (1992)

Sparkling, then it hits the wall. This adaptation of the book that also spawned the opera La Bohème is set in Paris and acted in French, even though some of the main actors apparently didn’t speak French. Since those people are portrayed as both foreign and, more importantly, bonkers fabulists, this actually works ok for me, though I might not think so if French was my first language. This was Kaurismäki’s first film with delightful antihero André Wilms, and its first half-hour is as overtly comical as anything here.

When things start to get real, it drags a little, perhaps because by that point we are not really in the mood for realism. So although the ending should be moving, and for better people than us it probably is, we found ourselves thinking this was the first time one of his films had run longer than it should have.

11. The Match Factory Girl (1990)

Sent to divide us.

This is the only film by Kaurismäki to appear in the TSPDT Top 1000, which I understand to be a crowd-sourced list of the 1000 best films in the world. The director has apparently said this was the first film of his that he found good enough to watch. Reviews call it “devastating” and “a sobering parable”. Kati Outinen says she didn’t know she was expected to play the lead until she turned up for filming. It’s about a woman who is misused by her family, abused by a lover, and seeks revenge.

It’s a beautifully posed and filmed study of people, relationships, and work, a grotesque story about sexism and class, and also a potentially funny comedy, if you are not a child. It is very good, but it’s bleak, rather linear, a bit slight, and I don’t think I could ever be persuaded that it’s the best thing Kaurismäki has made. I wonder whether the high rankings come from people thinking it must be important because it’s grim, or that they ought to include Kaurismäki on their list and this looks like the least foolish option. I’d love to hear opposing views.

10. * Lights in the Dusk (2006)

This is an odd one. It’s in a more realistic style than the films that came before and after it (The Man Without A Past and Le Havre). Helsinki is modern, shiny, and unfriendly, and there is, unusually, no ambiguity about when the film is set. It’s a film about a man who ignores the world: he is picked up and used in a heist, and takes the fall for it with no indication that he recognises what is happening. The idea is not unfamiliar, but it’s unusually concrete and blunt. Perhaps the world is not as good as some of these other films suggest it can be. Kaurismäki’s previous film had been almost a fairytale. Was he sickened by it?

This is surely the most macho of Kaurismäki’s films. It has taciturn mob bosses and bullet-headed thugs, the female lead is a classic femme fatale, and other women get merely a line or two. It has what appears, to ignorant outsider me, to be a slightly laboured red vs white class divide (poor honest folk with Finnish names, rich gangsters with Swedish ones). There’s little warmth to the film, though there are certainly mysteries, of which the prime one is why the hero refuses to acknowledge Aila the hot-dog seller.

It is funny, sometimes, and definitely compelling to look at, and has a fine soundtrack, but it left me feeling uneasy. Is it me? Am I misunderstanding? I fear that my response to this film might be something like the response an English-speaking viewer ought to have to Kaurismäki in general.

9. I Hired A Contract Killer (1990)

This film is in English, set in London. If you happen to know London, it’s well worth watching just for the amazing adaptations of London scenery.

For the English-speaking viewer, it also offers an opportunity to test the theory that we only like these films because they’re in a foreign language, set in foreign places, and subtitled.

We just about passed that test. London looks splendidly grubby, there are some amazing tableaux and great dialogue, and I enjoyed the either dispassionate or dismissive delivery, and it’s charming in a satisfyingly bleak way. It does feel a little bit arbitrary and discontinuous in comparison with the best here, but (unlike most of these) we’ve only seen this film once, and would happily see it again.

8. Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989)

Definitely our kids’ favourite Kaurismäki film: the only one they find truly acceptable. This is the tale of the worst band in the world, who are too awful for their home country and must go to America to be tolerated.

Part of the fun, besides plenty of low comedy, is that the Cowboys are portrayed as dreadful while being in fact pretty good. They may have to subsist on onions but they can definitely play, and the audiences, which are apparently real, generally seem to think so too. (The band now has an extensive performing history outside of the movies.)

A brilliant film in its stupid way.

7. * The Other Side of Hope (2017)

The story of an emigrant from wartime Syria arriving in Helsinki and then trying to find his sister. More realistic than Le Havre, the film that it is temporally and thematically following, and less hopeful. Its bleaker outlook is curiously reflected in the soundtrack, which is much sparser than usual. Although the film does have comic moments, they don’t always work for me. The Japanese restaurant sequence here is the only scene in any of Kaurismäki’s films that feels as if it’s making fun of the protagonists, although it’s redeemed a little by the gravity with which the restaurant owner responds to the humiliation.

That aside, this film is full of tender and generous acts. It feels like a handbook for behaviour in difficult times. I’m oddly reminded of Robin Sloan’s wordy but conceptually neat Proposal for a book to be adapted into a movie starring Dwayne The Rock Johnson, the thrust of which is that The Rock will inevitably be US President at some point, so we should prepare by placing him into a dramatic situation which enacts the compassion and empathy that we expect a US President to have. This film immerses us in a specific situation, like an aeroplane emergency instruction sequence, to give us an overdue preparation for a crisis we are already in.

6. * Ariel (1989)

Everything in this film is terrific. The opening, the drive across Finland, the scene where the couple meet, the breakfast with the kid and the gun, the scene with the cake, that scene at the end whose punchline has been set up from the start. It’s glorious, and by some measure it’s as brilliant as any film ever was, but by our measure it’s a little too much a series of great set-pieces, so it’s not allowed to be the best here.

5. * The Man Without A Past (2002)

I wasn’t keen on this the first time I saw it. I think that was because: it has a Hollywood plot (man wakes up with no idea who he is, learns to live among people he would have previously overlooked); it starts with an unpleasant act of violence that is hard to forget; and the lead actor is fairly hard-looking and doesn’t give us a lot to go on.

I changed my mind completely the second time around. That may be because in the meantime I’d seen its hero Markku Peltola in Drifting Clouds, and I felt warmer toward the man whose hands could no longer whip up a porridge. Or I had become a more sympathetic person myself, perhaps because of the times, and I realised how beatific The Man Without A Past is. It’s the first of a series of recent Kaurismäki films that are essentially richly coloured fairytales, illustrations of how we all could be, if we admitted our better selves. Despite the brutal act that sets up the plot, this is a peaceful film.

It also now seems to me like a wonderful showcase for Markku Peltola, the men who embraces the difficult life and looks just gently humorous at just the right moments, and for Kati Outinen in the most uncompromising and uncommunicative of her leading roles.

There are problems with it I think. Life in difficult places is made to seem rather easy, and we have a not entirely workable dichotomy between the happy poor and everyone else. But having seen this film twice, I look forward to watching it again.

4. Take Care of your Scarf, Tatjana! (1994)

This ludicrously-titled black-and-white road movie is for me the ur-Kaurismäki, in that it was the first of his films I ever saw. I taped it from a late-night TV broadcast in the 90s (no way I was staying up for something so random) and still have the VHS tape somewhere. It looks much better on DVD though, because the photography throughout is just gorgeous. I mean really gorgeous.

It’s sort of a loser-buddy comedy, filmed in stark monochrome as if it’s a gritty exposé. The (male) heroes are a silent idiot and a violent alcoholic braggart who have no depth and, in principle, nothing much to like about them. That makes them sound like action figures, but they have no action going on either. They are totally outshone by Tatjana and Klavdia, the friendly but unsentimental women they meet.

The film is full of lugubrious gags and comic ideas, and those are what I generally remember about it. A celebratory quarter-of-a-sandwich with tea to cement the friendship between nations, repairing a car by pulling bits out of the engine and throwing them away, Valto’s in-car coffee maker, Reino’s worryingly excitable monologue about punching someone.

But when watching it, it’s the spaces between those moments that make the film what it is. I found that I love this film much more when I’m actually watching it than I do in my memory.

And it’s only an hour long.

3. Shadows in Paradise (1986)

Bone-dry and beautiful. This provokingly slow film spends a lot of rich colour film looking at its lead actors, Matti Pellonpää and Kati Outinen, who are everything that matters in it. It’s only 80 minutes long, but feels a little longer even if you’re enjoying it. I like that. It’s funny and just sufficiently kind.

It’s no accident that Kati Outinen has a leading role in all the films at the top of this list. I love her later, more reserved middle-aged figures, but in this earlier one her slightly shifty character, on the edge, suspicious, always ready to abscond is a delight.

2. Le Havre (2011)

A boy escapes when a migrant family is stopped by the police in France, and the people around try to help him. A fairytale, a romance about human beings that pretends to be a police story or thriller. Such a clean and beautiful film, and I think better when you’ve seen it once already, know what happens, and can stop worrying about the plot.

This film is supposedly a sequel to La Vie de Bohème and has a lot in common with it, including being in French, but it is built the other way up. La Vie de Bohème spends a lot of time on everyday transactions, which are satisfying and entertaining, but becomes harder work when it goes ethereal later on. In Le Havre it’s the other way around: the transcendent is normal, and the rest of life is just telegraphed there to be the context for it. And this one has a slightly higher proportion of actors who actually speak French.

Kaurismäki goes to exceptional lengths to blur when this film is set. Taxis and police cars are from the 80s, some of the locations are set up to look much older, photographers use manual-winding film cameras, phones have rotary dials, nobody has a mobile phone, but the plot is precisely contemporary for the date the film was made. This film was comparatively well-funded I think, which made me wonder whether he would have gone this far every time if he could have afforded it. The result is a highly personal feeling in which the world around us is subjective and dream-like, and only the people in it are real.

1. * Drifting Clouds (1996)

A glorious love story that, in my alternate world, is a Christmas film that the family gathers to watch, a bit like It’s A Wonderful Life is supposed to be.

Drifting Clouds is a film about a middle-aged couple facing financial disaster, deep in debt, having lost their jobs, with a tragedy in their past, in the bleak economic climate of mid-90s Finland. It’s also a comedy, one that doesn’t demean its characters, who are proud, admirable, and committed to one another. Kati Outinen is excellent again but the solidity and good humour of Kari Väänänen is essential to prop things up and there’s a compelling supporting cast. The staging is beautiful, the photography cautious and sympathetic, and there’s a po-faced joke in every other line. Although slow-moving, it’s never slow.