Dir/scr: Aki Kaurismaki. Fin. 2006. 80mins.
LightsIn The Darkrepresents business as usual, more or less, for Finnish gloomsterAki Kaurismaki - albeit leavened with somewhat lessof his distinctive dry humour. This social-realist tale, with a dash of filmnoir, is about a loner whose life goes from bad to worse to worse still, andfinds the director in more pessimistic spirit than he has been for some time.
Thefilm concludes the so-called 'Loser Trilogy', but audiences hoping for theuplift found in its earlier chapters, DriftingClouds and The Man WithoutA Past, should be prepared for a far more sombre tone. This will nodoubt make Lights a harder sellinternationally, and while Kaurismaki fans andfestivals - it competed at Cannes - will embrace it, even admirers will have toadmit that the morose maestro is revisiting familiar ground rather than makingreal advances.
Thistime, Kaurismaki is largely working with a new cast,rather than the pool of regulars that has supported him for years. Saturninelead Hyytiainen steps into the spotlight as Koistinen, a lone wolf working as a night security guardfor a Helsinki company. Rejected by workmates and society alike, he lives ataciturn existence, and dreams of opening his own security firm.
Aglimmer of hope is offered by blonde siren Mirja (Jarvenhelmi), who seems the woman of his dreams. In fact,she's the moll of gangster Lindstrom (Koivula), andis setting up Koistinen as a stooge in a jewelrobbery. Inevitably, Koistinen takes the rap, andgoes to prison. On his release, things seem to be looking up, until he runsinto Mirja again.
PreviousKaurismaki films have tended to carry theircharacters on a relentless slide to catastrophe, only to reverse their fortunesat the eleventh hour. If Koistinen is saved, and it'sa moot point whether he is, it's only in the very last shot, which sees Kaurismaki paying concise homage to Robert Bresson, but which will strike many viewers as too inconclusiveand downbeat.
Otherwise,Lights is very much of a piece withrecent Kaurismaki films, in its proletarian subjectmatter, its moral sobriety, and its look. Where Drifting Clouds dealt with a couple and The Man Without A Past was about acommunity, this episode puts an absolute loner at stage centre. Again, this isa hard-times story showing how the system exploits and alienates the poor, butnow there's no social grouping to support the long-suffering hero.
Thehumour is also much less obvious: Kaurismaki's comedyhas always been on the borderline between dry wit and numb melancholy, but inthis film, the humour is largely a matter for the viewer to decide, and theoverall tone is harshly pessimistic, if implicitly tender.
Kaurismaki is apparentlyreferring to the codes of his beloved film noir in casting such archetypalleads as Hyttiainen and Jarvenhelmi.As the duplicitous dame, Jarvenhelmi impassivelyexudes icy blonde blankness, to perfect effect, while Hyutiainenconveys a mix of toughness, resignation and near-saintly passivity, making Koistinen a male counterpart to the hapless heroine of Kaurismaki's 1990 TheMatch Factory Girl. The gaunt Koivula, meanwhile,is a menacing hood straight out of the Richard Widmarkmould.
It'sup to the viewer to determine whether Kaurismaki isbeing deadly serious or having a sly, sardonic laugh at us and at his material:the ambivalence here is even more knife-edge than usual. What keeps us watching is the exceptional stylistic control andan ever-present sense of the Kaurismaki signature:even a close-up of a plate of bagels could come from no-one else's film.
CinematographerTimo Salminen frames andlights every shot to subtly heighten and stylise a picture of everydaydrabness, giving an otherwise static, inert-seeming world a sense oftimelessness and tragic intensity.
Kaurismaki regulars willbe pleased to find, among other attractions, a soundtrack mixing tangos andgarage rock; the mandatory canine cameo, this time by a dog named Paju; and even a brief appearance by the director's museKati Outinen. But although his films often maturewith repeated viewing, the immediate impression is that Lights is not quite vintage Kaurismaki.
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