Movie Review: Aki Kourismaki’s Proletariat Trilogy

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Dennis suggests Aki Kourismaki’s ‘Proletariat Trilogy’, beginning with Shadows In Paradise (in the Criterion Collection). Come with me, my friends, on a tour of some dour, Finnish comic tragedy. I said come with me… Some background on our journey: director Aki Kourismaki (and his less-internationally-distributed brother Mika) are insanely prolific, being jointly responsible for approximately 40% of the output of the Finnish film industry since the early 80s (Videoport has a nice selection of Aki’s work). Also, Aki believes that there’s no need for a movie to be longer than 90 minutes (his flicks usually clock in at around 75), he’s greatly influenced (and vice-versa) by American indie maverick director Jim Jarmusch, who patterned the final segment of his Night on Earth after Kourismaki’s oeuvre (you’ll recognize Aki’s longtime leading man, the great, sadly late Matti Pellonpaa as the Finnish cabdriver), and he’s boycotted his films’ repeated nominations to the American Academy Awards since the start of the (current) Iraq war because, well, he’s a great guy. I, being a great guy my own self, decided to plow through the three movies in his so-called ‘Proletariat Trilogy’ on my lunch hours this week, beginning with this sadly funny deadpan sort-of love story (thanks to the economic running times, I was able to polish them off with time to spare). The aforementioned Matti Pellonpaa (I can’t grace him with his proper umlauts, sorry)

The second most handsome man in Finland.

The second most handsome man in Finland.

stars, with his brush-y mustache and sad/mad eyes as Nikander, a seemingly-content single garbageman who goes on a bender when his friend and garbage partner dies, gets tossed in the drunk tank, meets new wingman (who looks like Greg ‘the Hammer’ Valentine) whom he gets to fill the friend’s vacancy, and starts a very tentative courtship of the blank-faced blonde at the local supermarket (played by frequent Kourismaki leading lady Kati Outinen, who looks like Tess Harper crossed with a boiled potato here). Like all of A.K.’s films, these two do not talk a lot (in fact, Finland seems entirely populated by inarticulate, constantly-smoking and drinking deadpan artists), and we’re invited to follow these decidedly lower class survivors as they shamble through their awful jobs, listen to either great American music or awful Finnish crooners, and, occasionally, do something unexpected and, as often as not, disastrous. Nikander, with his long, greasy hair, parrot face, and social ineptitude is as unlikely a romantic lead as you’ll ever see and, in his lumbering pursuit of the obviously-unimpressed checkout girl, he remains right on the cusp of unappealing/creepy. But you get drawn in by his somehow heroic baby steps (learning English, standing up for himself, buying a record player, keeping after his would-be lady), as circumscribed as they are by the constraints of good, ol’ capitalism, which keeps him and everyone else he knows trapped in seeming futility. Good little movie.

Ariel (in the Criterion Collection). Part 2 in Aki Kourismaki’s ‘Proletariat Trilogy’ is this, the most Jarmuschian of the three, with short, blackout scenes and a decided deadpan tinge to the typically tragicomic proceedings. Of course, this is Finland, and in Aki’s world, the comedy is dialed down and the consequences are more realistically-sad, and the hope of a whimsical almost-miracle that sort-of saves the day is notably absent. Sounds fun, right? Well, Ariel actually is pretty sprightly as A.K.’s films go, with leading man, the late Turo Pajala (I think the alarmingly high mortality rate amongst Aki’s casts could be attributed tot he fact that every single person in Finland seems averse to inhaling anything not laced with nicotine) stars as a lanky hipster (he looks like a Finnish Colin Farrell, with a

The most handsome man in Finland.

The most handsome man in Finland.

little Jarmusch himself thrown in) who, when the mine closes, takes the convertible Caddilac his dad leaves him (right before he blows his brains out in a bar bathroom) and heads to the big (for Finland) city. He gets rolled by some jerks first, and then can’t find a job, and can’t afford even to stay at the men’s shelter. Man. But then he meets a stone-faced, redheaded meter maid (the pale-ly, plainly attractive Susanna Haavisto) who throws away the ticket she was going to write him and hops in the Caddy, taking him home to her bed and her awesomely-capable little son. Then things go really wrong. Part of the strange humor of Ariel is how the everything our hero does is essentially the right thing to do, and yet everything he does makes things worse. Funny. The best of the trilogy, and the lightest (what with the prison, and the robberies, and the murder, and the inarticulate people having really awful things happen to them because they’re poor, and helpless against all the forces arrayed against them), Ariel boasts some great, deadpan performances (the great Matti Pellonpaa reappears), and even something like hope at the end of the tunnel.

The Match Factory Girl (in the Criterion Collection). You know the drill by now: Aki Kourismaki, Finland, ‘Proletariat Trilogy’, deadpan, inarticulate poor people, cruel fate, bad weather, lots of smoking and drinking, occasional grim humor. Well, you can scratch that last one in this last one in the Trilogy, as Aki decides to show you just how goddamned awful the world can be to someone poor, innocent, and with the slightest shimmer of dreams left. Kati Outinen from Shadows In

Headed for unending bliss.  HAHAHA...just kidding, of course.

Headed for unending bliss. HAHAHA...just kidding, of course.

Paradise is our hapless heroine this time and, unlike her previous hard-eyed toughie, she’s a guileless, dreamy, sheltered young woman who harbors dreams of escaping the silent torment that is her parents’ apartment (where she’s treated like a slave), and her thankless but much necessary menial job at the titular match factory. She goes out to utterly depressing dancehalls and nightclubs and meets a fella and they live happily ever after. No, I’m just shitting you, of course. Man, is this one bleak. Some evidence: the film opens with a three minute sequence of the jarring, shivering, and groaning machinery of the factory (it is pretty cool to see how matches are made), there isn’t one word of dialogue spoken to the heroine (except for the lyrics of a truly cheesy Finnish crooner which seems to go on for a long time) until the twenty minute mark (it’s not a nice word, and it’s accompanied by a slap), and then, well, things get really bad. Outinen is much more vulnerable, thinner, paler, and infinitely more breakable as her feeble, heartbreaking attempts to break out of her tiny little life predictably turn out as badly as they possibly can. Is there hope for her? Or for us? Well… It’s a great, little trilogy, and how many Finnish films have you seen in your life anyway?

Published in: on June 15, 2009 at 5:31 am  Comments (4)  
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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. It’ KAUrismäki, not KOUrismaki. Even if you stupid, inarticulate Americans can’t (of cource) speak any other language than your own (which is not even originally yours, unlike our, thousands years old and nuancedly rich language), then at least TRY to spell our names correctly, for crying out loud…

    Kouria in Finnish meas grouping (of women). And by the way, Kauris = deer, and mäki = hill. So, Kourismäki means a hill where men go groping women (in fact, that is an old traditional sport in Finland, along with tango music and ice-hockey).

    And it’s not “great American music or awful Finnish crooners” but vice versa, you stupid, ignorant American. Our music is the most sad and most beautiful music in this god forbidden world ours, and beyond.

    And talking about stupidity, I quote you: “fact that every single person in Finland seems averse to inhaling anything not laced with nicotine”. Oh, don’t tell me “it’s only a joke”, or that you were only trying to be “funny”, cos it ei ole sitä, eikä sinusta perkeleen purkanpurija saa hauskaa väkisinkään.

    Thank God (or whoever) we don’t have any oil in our fatherland, otherwise you stupid, warmongering weapons of mass market-targets would conquer this piece of shit that we love so very many.

    You and your fellow country men (like Mel Gibson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Madonna) have already destroyed almost all of our culture with your lipsticks of Hollywood, cameras of CNN, and bombs of NATO.

    Please, don’t watch any other Finnish film anymore – at least don’t make yourself a fool by writing a public commentary on them. Especially don’t watch Mikko Niskanen’s Kahdeksan surmanluotia (Eight Deadly Shots), the ultimate masterpiece of sadness, hopelessness and drunkenness that makes The Match Factory Girl seem like Disney-made capracorn. Or don’t even try to think to get any of those English subtitled dvds of the great Teuvo Tulio’s wild but crazy melodramas form 40’s and 50’s (warning: they are all black and white).

    This lesson about Finnish culture and language was free of charge. Those tree little words probably means nothing to you, and are completely uncomprehensible in your United State of Capitalism. But it’s not my problem. My problem is the price of the Koskenkorva-vodka.

  2. I have approved this comment because it is the most insane, bananas, and altogether most awesome thing anyone has ever written. Ever. Shine on, you crazy Finnish bastard! I love you!

  3. Ah, the well-known Finnish sense of humor. A light-hearted culture, it is.

  4. You tell ‘em, K!!!!


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