The poignant, deadpan films of Aki Kaurismäki are pitched somewhere in the wintry nether lands between comedy and tragedy. And rarely in his body of work has the line separating those genres seemed thinner than in what is often identified as his Proletariat Trilogy, Shadows in Paradise, Ariel, and The Match Factory Girl. In these three films, something like social-realist farces, Kaurismäki surveys the working-class outcasts of his native Finland with detached yet disarming amusement. Featuring commanding, off-key visual compositions and delightfully dour performances, the films in this triptych exemplify the talents of a unique and highly influential film artist.
Editors of the Eclipse series appear to taking some critical political stances these days judging from their selection of Aki Kaurismäki’s Proletariat Trilogy as follow-up to the equally dour Larisa Sheptiko boxed set. Whereas Sheptiko’s films portray Soviet soldiers and workers toiling in war-ravaged Russia, Kaurismaki’s films are set in and around bleak working-class neighborhoods in Helsinki, and star characters who resort to lives of crime because it is impossible to make ends meet. However, similarities between the directors more or less stop there. Kaurismaki’s more modern social critiques mercifully employ deadpan humor to rescue the viewer from utter hopelessness and to shield one from the bitterness his characters suffer. Like Robert Bresson’s films, Kaurismaki’s rely upon understated acting and long scenes in which the camera hardly moves, to allow plot development that is slow, emotionally resonant, and ultimately realistic. His three films included here are mid-career works that share basic plots and even actors, though, of course, each film merits close viewing. Shadows in Paradise
(1986) is the oldest film, and sets in motion the archetypal tragic character who tries and fails at earning money honestly under depressed economic conditions. Opening with shots of dumpsters being emptied during a snowstorm, one senses instantly that Nikander’s (Matti Pellonpää) life may be the ultimate drag. When his partner invites him to start a new company, using the slogan "Reliable garbage since 1968," and Nikander replies, "But that’s now," it becomes clear that neither he nor his peers are extremely bright. His new girlfriend Ilona (Kati Outinen) leads an equally dreary life as a grocer, and the pace speeds only slightly. Not until Nikander meets Melartin (Sakari Kuosmanen) in prison does one experience his adventurous side. Similarly, Ariel
(1988) opens with a wry scene starring Taisto Kasurinen (Turo Pajala), a Finnish coal miner who witnesses his father’s suicide after his father wills him a fantastic vintage car. Taisto, dreadfully impoverished, leaves for the city, where he meets Irmeli (Susanna Haavisto), a kind-hearted woman who doesn’t necessarily have ambitious taste in men. As Taisto digs himself deeper into trouble with the law, no thanks to his friend Mikkonen (Matti Pellonpää), Irmeli chooses loyalty over protecting her son from a man who is ultimately a criminal.
The most compact and stylistically impressive of Aki Kaurismäki's perversely minimalist Finnish comedies, The Match Factory Girl stars his blond, blank-faced Garbo, Kati Outinen, as a downtrodden factory worker whose attempts to discover love and companionship are constantly thwarted by her possessive parents and a succession of cloddish, exploitative men. Kaurismäki's deadpan style--the carefully inexpressive acting, motionless camera, and rigidly geometrical compositions--avoids both sentimentality and sarcasm. Although the girl's plight is taken seriously, there is something in the extremity of the situations, and in the lovingly depicted hideousness of her Helsinki home life, that is irresistibly comic. Inspired by the Tiananmen Square uprising, the match factory girl resolves to take a revolutionary stand, arms herself with a packet of rat poison, and sets out for revenge. The video includes an equally hilarious music-video rendition of "Those Were the Days" by Kaurismäki's house band, the Leningrad Cowboys. In each of these films, the director relies on the public’s understanding of poor economy to order empathetic viewing. If one doesn’t prescribe to blaming government for societal hardships, his characters seem pathetic and borderline idiotic. This gray area between sympathy and contempt is Kaurismaki territory, and viewing his films reminds one how the personal is political. --Trinie Dalton and Dave Kehr