La Vie de Bohème

(Aki Kaurismäki, Finland, 1992)


Although Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki is probably best known in Australia for his tiresomely zany, music-based comedies such as Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989), there is another, richer side to his career.

Kaurismäki is a droll poet of the petty low-life – bums, criminals and factory workers who pace out their meagre days, always just missing out on the glamorous adventures of love and escape.

Kaurismäki hit top form with I Hired a Contract Killer (1990), a hilarious film in which a perfect economy of cinematic means matched the director's typically nihilistic, deadpan humour. La Vie de Bohème, like his Hamlet Goes Business (1987), is an emptied-out retelling of a well-known story.

Loosely based on the novel by Henri Murger which provided the plot for Puccini's La Bohème, it follows the fairly uneventful lives of three artists, painter Rodolfo (Matti Pellonpaa), writer Marcel (Andre Wilms) and composer Schaunard (Kari Vaananen).

In this sparse corner of Paris, beautifully rendered in black and white by cinematographer Timo Salminen, the period setting deliberately wanders. Characters discuss the latest breakthroughs in modernist art of the '30s, compare themselves to Italian movie stars of the '60s, and wander past street fixtures that are recognisably of the '90s.

Likewise, Kaurismäki's marvellous selection of goofy pop songs to punctuate the action (including "I Drink Systematically") follows no strict rule of dramatic pertinence.

The tragedy of Rodolfo's relationship with Mimi, familiar from La Bohème, enters the piece belatedly, with Kaurismäki opting for a strange, ironic pathos instead of melodramatic angst. Evelyne Didi as Mimi wears the miserable, blank expression which is the trademark look of Kaurismäki's actors.

This mode of performance is so completely hang-dog, in fact, that the director gives equal billing in the credits to a memorable canine named Baudelaire – present in many scenes and eventually the subject of one of Rodolfo's most stirring portraits.

MORE Kaurismäki: Ariel, Drifting Clouds, The Man Without a Past

© Adrian Martin December 1994

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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