One of the quiet but essential moments of modern cinema history occurred in 1964 when Jean-Luc Godard made Bande à part, which he described it as "a French film with a pre-war atmosphere".
What this meant was that his story of three lovely young things flirting with death and danger would take place in the present day – Godard has never made a period film – but that everything would be rendered in the style, the feeling of another era. The markers of that era come from popular memory and myth, from music and literature, and mainly, of course, from cinema. In Godard's case his reference point was the famous 'poetic realist' French films of the 1930s and '40s, notably the movies of Marcel Carné that mixed romance and fantasy with a particularly poignant sense of everyday struggles and failures. Carné's famous classic, Children of Paradise (Les Enfants du Paradis, 1945) marks the high point of that poetic realism.
What Godard did in Bande à part defines a particular effect we also find in many contemporary filmmakers, such as Olivier Assayas and Atom Egoyan. They stick steadfastly to the present day for their characters, stories and settings, but will allow themselves this minimal degree of nostalgia: they sometimes allow the ghostly images of past times and past periods of cinema, certain moods and character types and stylistic effects, to drift into their cinema world.
It is often a very modest effect, just an echo or allusion, and it gives these films a slightly unanchored, fantastic air. Watching them, we are occasionally uncertain whether they are set in the present day, or in some more distant historical period. We float in a kind of fanciful dimension where many different historical periods and places – and the subsequent renderings of those periods and places in cinema – co-exist in a dream-like simultaneity. Even more conventional, commercial movies, like John Huston's memorable Prizzi's Honor (1985), occasionally attempt something like this.
There is no contemporary filmmaker more engaged in this subtle, dreamlike effect of mixing times, places and sensibilities than the Finnish director, Aki Kaurismäki. His films are truly odd, and – as I have come to appreciate over the last couple of years – truly beautiful and affecting, combining a modesty of material means with a tenacity of artistic vision. He is one of those filmmakers, like Godard or Assayas or Edward Yang, who makes cinema in order to capture some ephemeral, complex, crystalline feeling of jumbled-up joy and melancholy, triumph and oblivion – a mood which he senses is in the air these days.
His films are so deliberately slight that at times they hardly feel 'there', and they may not linger beyond the moment – just like his characters, who seem permanently perched on the brink of completely losing track of themselves completely in sadness, drink, or aimless, restless movement. This slightness also extends to his preferred storylines, which are always some form of very small, humble anecdote, joke, or slice of life.
Kaurismäki is not entirely unknown in Australia. SBS television (a multicultural public broadcaster), in particular, has helped to keep his name and his work circulating. Perhaps he is best known as a comic filmmaker, particularly for his movies with the Devo-type rock band The Leningrad Cowboys. (Actually, the zaniest side of Kaurismäki is one that I can gladly leave out of my appreciation of his work). He first grabbed my attention with I Hired a Contract Killer (1990), and from there – through La Vie de Bohème (1992) and Take Care of Your Scarf, Tatjana (1994) to Drifting Clouds – I've become and remain a devoted fan. These recent films of Kaurismäki's have that trademark drollness and deadpan humour – and an occasional boyish silliness – but they are also acutely sad and touching films, which announce the maturing of Kaurismäki's very fine and distinctive cinematic idiom.
Let's take I Hired a Contract Killer as an example of this idiom. It was shot in England, with the famous Nouvelle Vague actor Jean-Pierre Léaud in the lead role, speaking a comically fractured and bizarre version of English. It's set in the present day, but it comes across as a slightly off-key tribute to the British films of a previous era: part Ealing studios, part documentary realism, part poignant kitchen sink drama of the early 1960s. Kaurismäki invents actions, scenes and gestures – such as the dreary life of an office worker – and unerringly finds locations for these actions that stir, somewhere in our cinematic memories, these past times of British cinema.
At the same time it's also a very European film. As well as its reference to French cinema it reminds us of those Czech, Polish and Yugoslav New Wave movies of ordinary life from the '60s, films about the loves of a fireman or a switchboard operator or a rockin' girl on a humble motor scooter.
One important thing about Kaurismäki's style is that he rarely (possibly never) commissions any original musical score for his movies. Each of his films uses a very curious collage of chosen discs from the past – often hilarious, very obscure selections – which also cover, in a mind-boggling way, many different periods and places in the history of popular music. Kaurismäki also loves to film bands and singers performing songs – often the whole song from beginning to end, which is a rare thing in movies. In one scene in I Hired a Contract Killer, the '80s British punk legend Joe Strummer stands alone to one side in almost completely empty pub, performing some odd skiffle-reggae-rock tune that itself seems to condense about forty years of musical styles.
What are Kaurismäki's movies about? In a certain sense, they are about nothing much: they depict the incidentals of daily life, the frazzled reactions, the non-actions, the dead or tired or just plain bone-lazy moments. Certain fundamentals of the daily grind and the effort necessary to survive it – like making a cup of tea of coffee, or having a smoke, or being able to tune your ear into that catchy tune playing on a radio in the next room – these assume paramount, sometimes melodramatic importance in the Kaurismäki universe.
At the start of Take Care of Your Scarf, Tatjana, the sullen hero finds, during his tedious daily round of sewing work for his mother, that he has run out of coffee – so he locks his mother in the back room, and splits for an ambling road-movie and sea-movie tour. At the end of the film, in perfect symmetry, he returns to that house, calmly unlocks the door and lets his mother out, and goes back to his sewing ... That's a true Kaurismäki narrative structure.
Kaurismäki's films are often about journeys, both external and internal. But these journeys have none of the drive of the journey-theme in most mainstream movies. Something moves and changes for the people in Kaurismäki's films, but often it is a slowly dawning realisation – sometimes, a realisation of their own deep misery, and a working-out of some way to keep on living with that degree of sad self-realisation. But Kaurismäki, is also, in his own way, a fan of happy endings – sometimes blank, ironic, corny happy endings, as if in quotation, again, from an older, happier movie like Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1946).
Drifting Clouds is about some familiar Kaurismäki subjects: work, unemployment, and a small, self-run business. The main characters are a married couple, Ilona and Lauri, played by two of Kaurismäki's doe-eyed, heavy-set, resolutely unglamorous regulars, Kati Outinen and Kari Väänänen. These actors are utterly lovable in their silently frazzled air of despondency and their eagerness to momentarily forget their lot in a smoke or drink, in a song or a dance, in sleep, or in bittersweet reminiscence. Ilona and Lauri made me remember the similar couples in two Australian films: Brian McKenzie's Stan and George's New Life (1991) Chris Windmill's short The Birds Do a Magnificent Tune (1996).
Even more intensely, I remembered the loving couple in what, for me, is the quintessential film about the unpredictable, small trials of daily life – Jacques Becker's superbly modest poetic-realist film Antoine and Antoinette (1947). Kaurismäki's characters are not quite as gregarious and passionate as Antoine and Antoinette – like their Australian counterparts, there's something more reserved, more secretive, and something more worn-down about them. Kaurismäki's films almost never have a whiff of sex in them – in fact, even a goodnight kiss is pretty rare – but still you feel the soulful, intimate bonds that connect people, something of what Shigehiko Hasumi calls the "eloquence of the taciturn" in Ozu and Hou Hsaio-hsien.
Ilona and Lauri lose their respective jobs, and times are hard in their part of the world. There's an agonising period without work for both of them, and the shame this causes Lauri, in particular, drives a wedge of silence and distance between the two. Items that the couple have struggled to buy on instalments, like a new television set, are unceremoniously repossessed. But eventually, our fumbling, fading heroes find something stoic in themselves, and they open their own restaurant.
I am not the first reviewer to comment on the curious, fortuitous confluence between Drifting Clouds and two successful British movies, Brassed Off (Mark Herman, 1996) and The Full Monty (Peter Cattaneo, 1997). Both of the British movies are about little battlers who pick themselves up, resist the misery all around them, create their own opportunities and make good. Stephen Frears' The Van (1996) is also in this vein. Kaurismäki, as I've indicated, has his own soul-affinity with the history of British cinema, and its fragile, contingent optimism, so this comparison makes sense. The difference between Drifting Clouds and the other movies is that Kaurismäki is simply not interested in rah-rah feel-good filmmaking. The breakthroughs are quieter, more serene, and finally more ambiguous in his movies; the cycle of struggle is only paused, not halted.
The beauty and affect of Drifting Clouds are due to many small but precisely calculated – and flawlessly achieved – elements: his fondness for certain colours and colour schemes, like the sky-blue which is painted, in various shades, hues and intensities, over just about every surface; his compositions, mainly formal, static, and unforced but always arresting; his signature camera-moves for big dramatic moments, always just in or out a few metres; his locations, always perfectly chosen for their odd, resonant qualities; the physical expressions of his actors, with their blank faces turned frontally toward the camera, their clenched fists and broken, collapsed, slumped postures; and the amazing lighting created by Kaurismäki and his faithful cinematographer Timo Salminen – those little shafts and pockets of light that pick out hands, eyes and special objects, in a modestly heavenly light that reminds us of a poetry and magic lurking in even the drabbest corners of our world.
© Adrian Martin November 1997