27 July 2007

OH AKI, YOU SO FINE, YOU SO FINE YOU BLOW MY MIND

With Lights in the Dusk, I have seen two films by Aki Kaurismäki, and that makes me as much an expert on the director as 99.5% of the American population.

The remaining 0.5% inform me that all in all, this new film is not a particularly distinguished entrant in his canon, and I'm quite sure they're right, and some years from now when the long-awaited "The Every Kaurismäki Film Box Set" comes out, I'll make a point of revisiting this film and finding it lacking.

But for this moment in time, in my blissful ignorance, I'd be lying if I said that I didn't find it a pretty satisfying experience.

Most famous (insofar as it is famous at all) for being Finland's official submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar last year before the director demanded that it be pulled from consideration, Lights in the Dusk is the third film in a so-called "Loser Trilogy," following Drifting Clouds and The Man Without a Past, and it earns the title fairly: we follow the low-key adventures of Koistinen (Janne Hyytiäinen), a security company worker as he lets himself be taken in by Mirja (Maria Järvenhelmi), one of the lowest-rent con women you ever did see, who scams him out of his codes and keys, and send him upriver without a word of complaint.

The bulk of the film's slender running time (78 minutes!) is dedicated to Koistinen and Mirja's "courtship," and this is where we see just how much of a loser our hero is. The two never have sex, barely kiss, rarely do anything but sit in dead silence in diners and movie theaters. It takes only a few moments to realize that the security guard is taken in not be Mirja's charms (seriously: she is a terrible con woman), but simply by the fact that she is a human female who is willing to look at him and engage him in conversation. His simpering gratitude for this colossally insignificant gesture leads him to defend her all the way to the end, even as he is sent to prison for refusing to turn her over, when it is impossibly obvious that she was only ever using him for his access.

Throughout, Koistinen is watched by Aila (Maria Heiskenan), the owner of a small food stand that he frequents after work, who pines for him without ever finding the strength to approach him. In her own way, she's as relationally inept as he is, but she never comes across as a loser in quite the same strokes simply because she is not the story's focus. But her presence does make Koistinen that much more pathetic: he ignores that (not very) dowdy shopkeeper in favor of the (not very) glamorous femme fatale, despite the giant flashing warning lights that make it clear at every step of things that she is bad news.

A protagonist so clearly incompetent at life is a hard sell, but Kaurismäki somehow manages to turn this cartoonish sad sack into an honest-to-God sympathetic hero. His last film, The Man Without a Past, was a virtual manifesto of sympathy for the weak-willed failures of society, and in Lights in the Dusk he looks at Koistinen's tremendous lapses and servile weakness in the face of women with something like pity. Not that he leaves the character with much in the way of dignity, but he isn't cruel about it.

Instead, the film ends up turning into a cocked look at the world around Koistinen, a world that is pretty arbitrary and foolish. Lights in the Dusk is actually a comedy, albeit a mostly deliberately alienating comedy that dabbles in the arid wit that Kaurismäki is famous for. It's hard to explain how jokes that aren't can be funny, and how the specific absence of laughter can be a sign of a film's comic success, but this Bizarro World conflict is at the heart of the director's style. The best way to sum up his worldview here might be something like, "Life sucks, and then it sucks some more, and eventually you'll die. Isn't that the damndest thing?" His camera is a very flat camera, keeping everything in frame at the same uninflected depth and holding steady on essentially unimportant moments for so long that we're eventually given to realize that the joke is that nothing is happening.

That's clearly not for everybody, and it would appear that Lights in the Dusk isn't even for the people that ought to enjoy it (I've seen this film described in good faith as going too far for obvious laughs; that might be true, but that must mean that the director's other films are practically Dadaist). Well, what can I say: I enjoyed it. It's low-key to the point where it hardly exists, but it's ultimately good-natured and it is mostly honest about how most of life is just puttering around waiting for whatever is going to happen to happen, and hardly noticing that it never actually does. Sure, The Man Without a Past did the same thing better. That doesn't have anything to do with the fact that on its own terms, Lights in the Dusk is a wholly satisfying comic-existential bit of fluff.

8/10

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