My favorite English subtitle comes in Aki Kaurismäki’s Take Care of Your Scarf, Tatjana. As its two middle-aged slackers awkwardly sit down together, one tells the other, “Move your ass, said Johnny Cash.” The more literal translation, “Get up smartly, sang Anniki Tahti,” refers to a veteran Finnish chanteuse who has a memorable cameo in Kaurismäki’s latest film, The Man Without a Past. But the Jonnny Cash reference is inspired, not just for its note of barroom swagger, but also because it pinpoints the flavor of Kaurismäki’s films. There’s actually almost no country music to be found amidst his eclectic soundtracks, which in their way provide as thorough a self-portrait as Scorsese’s jukebox choices: blues, lachrymose Finnish tango, snatches of Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky, and copious Fifties and Sixties rock and R&B.
But Kaurismäki doesn’t need country music, because his films are themselves country and western songs of the old school: stories of taciturn loners with hidden sentimental streaks, trying to walk tall in a world where there’s not enough work and too much vodka. Kaurismäki has taken the road movie genre more to heart than any European director save Wenders; it seems an oversight that he’s never made a film about a lonesome trucker winning the heart of a diner waitress on the highway north to Lapland.
Following the universal praise for The Man Without a Past in Cannes last year—for many critics, it should have won the Palme d’Or—there is no longer any excuse for not taking Aki Kamismaki seriously, although he himself has spent his career dismissing himself as a buffoon. A master of the sourly self-deprecating interview (“All my films are lousy”), he spikes his most deeply felt scenes with flip gags that undercut the emotion: at one of the gravest moments in Drifting Clouds, as the unemployed hero’s hoped-for job falls flat, he falls flat too, keeling over like a plank in true slapstick style.
The clowning seems a defense mechanism on the part of someone who takes film and life seriously—at times, you suspect, painfully so. Kaurismäki’s cinephilia, together with his hangdog persona, suggests that he really does make films to stay alive: at the very least, they offer a healthy distraction from his prodigious intake of alcohol and tobacco. Kaurismäki has devoured the American noir tradition, but his professed allegiance is to the European high canon: his recent selection of an all-time Top Ten for Sight & Sound included films by Vigo, Buñuel, Bresson, and Tati, along with Griffith and Ozu. He started filming in the early Eighties, co-directing a rock documentary, The Saimaa Gesture, with his globe-trotting brother Mika (whose own directing career remains entirely overshadowed by his older brother’s); the two launched careers that briefly ran in tandem, working as each other’s producers and presiding over the congenially offbeat Midnight Sun Film Festival, way up in the Arctic Circle.
Kaurismäki’s films may offer a wayward variety, yet his working methods are remarkably constant: he chooses his lead actors from the same pool of haggardly characterful faces and has always worked, except in one TV film, with the virtuoso cinematographer Timo Salminen. According to Kaurismäki, he himself chooses the compositions and gives Salminen free rein with lighting. You can usually tell a Kaurismäki film by a single shot-especially the slightly stiff two-shots in cafés, or slouched groups at bar tables. And despite Salminen’s versatility—equally at home with outdoor naturalism and with sculpted black-and-white chiaroscuro—certain signature looks recur, notably the hot cartoon-strip primaries of The Man Without a Past and the deep chalky blue that dominates Drifting Clouds.
You can read the complete version of this article in the March/April 2003 print edition of Film Comment.