"Minor Kaurismäki" is a redundancy: Aki Kaurismäki, Finland's greatest director (um, for what it’s worth), has built a career on defiantly small-scale films, all the while insisting loudly that he is "a lousy film-maker." His latest film, Lights In The Dusk, is the capstone to the aptly dubbed "Loser Trilogy." All of Kaurismäki’s work seems to come from the same template; it's deadpan and glum to the core with a late-breaking streak of hard-earned optimism. But Kaurismäki's sardonic director's statement describes him as a "sentimental old man," and Lights In The Dusk -- like its predecessor, The Man Without a Past -- tends to bears this diagnosis out, though not in a good way.
Kaurismäki's tone never deviates a centimeter from precedent. Security guard Koistinen (Janne Hyytiäinen) is a miserable, chain-smoking solitary drinker with no friends; his colleagues are miserable, chain-smoking drinkers with friends who don't talk to him. His boss insists on asking Koistinen what his (Koistinen's) name is every time he turns in his keys to end the nightly shift, despite three years of employment at the same place. (“He’ll learn,” the boss insists sullenly.) Women recoil at bars when he says hello, and men beat him up in three seconds when he challenges their cruelty to animals. Helsinki is perpetually gray and empty. Kaurismäki’s business as usual.
Enter femme fatale Mirja (Maria Jarvenhelmi), who is introduced, in the movie's boldest stylistic move, with a dramatic track in from long shot to pseudo-bombshell close-up. Her introduction perhaps the only time the film leaves the realm of Kaurismäki deadpan and enters the luridly dramatic, and the invocation of a noir plot is apt. Mirja turns out to be -- no surprise -- duplicitous and ruinous for Koistinen, distracting him from Aila (Maria Heiskanen), the woman who truly loves him. Aila runs the all-night hot-dog stand that marks Koistinen's one interaction with humanity every day.
Newcomers to Kaurismäki should understand that a character’s facial expressions give almost no clue as to what's going on; everyone has a poker face that makes Buster Keaton look thoroughly emotive. A visit to Kaurismäki's land of perpetual misery is always perversely comic -- the characters and situations shoot past miserabilist drudgery quickly: The worse things get, the funnier they are. But Kaurismäki's sentimentality is a double-edged sword, as it prevents his movies from being shallow one-note exercises but can also suck the life from them. In The Man Without A Past, Kaurismäki outwitted his own formula with an unusual number of gorgeous tracking shots that tipped the film from purely sardonic to low-key lyrical.
Lights In The Dusk is positively conventional in style: The scenes are constructed in traditional, establishing shot/close-up/reaction-shot etc. mode, and that effect -- combined with the unchangingly dowdy tone, lack of aesthetic relief and increasingly humorless tone -- eventually renders the film lifeless, with the noir angle never followed through to any satisfaction. Plot-wise, Kaurismaki leans closer than ever to genre norms -- a man betrayed by one woman through crime, redeemed by another -- and his normal approach doesn’t quite make sense. The film never transcends its conventional dramatics to reach the pleasingly absurd, nor is it convincing in narrative terms.
Kaurismäki's work always plays (at best) as a one-note joke, but The Man Without a Past managed to locate a world beyond omni-directional, hard-drinking sardonic anger. Lights In The Dusk doesn't quite pull off that trick -- it feels like it was constructed precisely to showcase the limitations of Kaurismäki's typical formula -- but completists (including, admittedly, this writer) will be re-assured. Unlike his oft-cited friend and contemporary Jim Jarmusch, there appears to be little danger of a change in direction anytime soon.
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