Fairy­tale re­al­ism

Fin­nish di­rec­tor Aki Kau­ris­mäki is on his 18th film and though he shows signs of slow­ing down – in pro­duc­tion terms at least – his lat­est stays true to his sin­cere brand of sur­re­al­ism, writes Don­ald Clarke

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Film -

IF YOU HAP­PENED upon a for­eign ar­ti­cle that made merry with stereo­types con­cern­ing the Ir­ish and al­co­hol you might, quite rea­son­ably, climb upon your high­est horse and take lofty of­fence. But the in­de­struc­tible Aki Kau­ris­mäki, Fin­land’s most dis­tin­guished film di­rec­tor, makes it hard to avoid men­tion­ing sim­i­lar myths about his own na­tion’s fond­ness for the booze.

“I have a glass for you and some wine,” he says. Hang on. Isn’t it still the mid­dle of the af­ter­noon? “I will keep it for my­self.”

A broad-faced chap with a to­bacco-stained voice, Kau­ris­mäki (54) could not be more agree­able. Ev­ery sen­tence is un­der­scored by a sim­mer­ing cackle. Anec­dotes are pep­pered with ironic (I think) provo­ca­tions. He also seems com­mend­ably un­in­ter­ested in tak­ing of­fence.

All right, then. Per­haps he would like to re­pu­di­ate this no­tion that the Finns are over-

“If it’s a com­edy the au­di­ence wants to laugh. If it’s a drama they want drama. They don’t want po­lit­i­cal lessons”

ly fond of the booze? Why do peo­ple say that?

“Be­cause we are pro­fes­sion­als,” he says. “I re­mem­ber an in­ci­dent at the Ber­lin film fes­ti­val. I was with my sec­re­tary and three Ir­ish guys came to me and said: ‘So, you Fin­nish peo­ple are hard drinkers? Well, let’s see.’ I put my hand up and or­dered 20 vod­kas. We drank them. And then 20 schnapps. And af­ter that the three Ir­ish guys were on the floor. I just re­turned to my sec­re­tary and we con­tin­ued the con­ver­sa­tion we were hav­ing be­fore they ar­rived.”

We can only apol­o­gise to the Fin­nish tourism au­thor­i­ties.

Over the past 30 years, Kau­ris­mäki has de­vel­oped a sin­gu­lar brand of cinema that com­bines off-cen­tre hu­mour with a gen­uine con­cern for hu­man­ity. Films such as The Match Fac­tory Girl, The Man With­out a Face and Drift­ing Clouds all have their mo­ments of ca­reer­ing sur­re­al­ism. But each has a sin­cere emo­tional core.

His lat­est film, the ex­cel­lent Le Havre, fits quite com­fort­ably into the canon. The picture fol­lows an el­derly shoeshine, once a bit of a bo­hemian, who falls in with a young African im­mi­grant. As ever, Le Havre is lit­tered with left-field jokes. But the di­rec­tor never risks dis­tanc­ing the au­di­ence from the film’s fleshy char­ac­ters.

“The au­di­ence goes to the cinema for a rea­son,” he says. “If it’s a com­edy they want to laugh. If it’s a drama they want drama. They don’t want po­lit­i­cal lessons if they go to the cinema. So this is a kind of fairy­tale ver­sion of a se­ri­ous sub­ject. I am still not sure if it’s too light. But I still stand be­hind it.”

Kau­ris­mäki was born in cen­tral Fin­land in 1957. He ex­plains that he and his el­der brother Mika, also a movie di­rec­tor, found it dif­fi­cult to see world cinema, grow­ing up. But a glimpse of a scar­ily ap­pro­pri­ate dou­ble bill helped turn him into the film-maker he is to­day.

“The first se­ri­ous movie I saw was in a film club,” he says. “It was a dou­ble bill of Robert Fla­herty’s Nanook of the North and Luis Buñel’s L’age d’or.”

How per­fect: a work of doc­u­men­tary ver­ité and a slice of de­ranged sur­re­al­ism. All Kau­ris­mäki is there.

“Yes, you can trace all my cinema from that, be­cause, in a way, they are so far apart. I have al­ways been work­ing some­where in be­tween. I was shocked af­ter the screen­ing. I never knew that cinema could be a kind of art. I had never seen that type of film be­fore. Yes, it re­ally was a shock.”

Still, he didn’t im­me­di­ately throw him­self into film-mak­ing. Kau­ris­mäki spent three years study­ing to be a jour­nal­ist at the Univer­sity of Helsinki, but ended up quit­ting to work in a se­ries of “real jobs”. He toiled away as a dish­washer and post­man. By now a se­ri­ous film ad­dict, he wrote the odd piece of crit­i­cism and, in 1989, Kau­ris­mäki and Mika set up their own film com­pany named – in trib­ute to Jean-luc Go­dard’s Al­phav­ille – Vil­lealfa.

The films the broth­ers de­vel­oped sat out­side any con­tem­po­rary art­house con­ven­tions. They were gritty, odd and el­lip­ti­cal. But there was lit­tle of the naval-gaz­ing you ex­pected from such high-brow snoots as Michelan­gelo An­to­nioni or Alain Res­nais. These guys clearly en­joyed a good laugh.

“You can see from my first film to my last film that they are all the same,” he says. “I don’t give the ac­tors or­ders if they are good, but I con­trol them 100 per cent. That’s why there is no act­ing in my films. No­body acts in my films. They don’t wave their hands like wind­mills. They are con­trolled. Even if they don’t know it. Be­fore ev­ery shot, I whis­per some­thing to them. But I won’t tell you what. It’s a trade se­cret. Ha ha ha!”

It is true to say that, even though the films cover a va­ri­ety of sub­jects, the ac­tors al­ways seem to be per­form­ing in the same un­der­stated, slightly dis­em­bod­ied style. Even the dogs ap­pear to have at­tended the Kau­ris­mäki Act­ing School. As is of­ten the case with his work, a ca­nine of­fers a tip-top per­for­mance in Le Havre.

“They don’t cost a shit,” he says. “They are the cheap­est ac­tors and they never com­plain. They can act. They should all get the same money, dogs and hu­mans. That would be fair. Ha, ha, ha!”

Kau­ris­mäki first at­tracted in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion with his 1989 film Len­ingrad Cow­boys Go Amer­ica. That picture played up the ab­sur­dist side of his pe­cu­liar aes­thetic. A year later, with the won­der­ful The Match Fac­tory Girl, he re­vealed more sen­si­tive in­stincts. Kau­ris­mäki once con­fessed that he shot about half of his films when sober and made the other half when blind drunk. Crit­ics, not un­rea­son­ably, then tried to dis­tin­guish one from the other. Maybe Len­ingrad Cow­boys is a boozed-up film and The Match Fac­tory Girl is a clear-eyed picture.

“That was not a joke. It is a fact,” he says (thereby en­cour­ag­ing me to won­der if it might have been a joke af­ter all). “And no­body can tell one from the other. Have you seen The Man With­out a Past? I was to­tally drunk mak­ing that. I was sober mak­ing Le Havre. Can you tell the dif­fer­ence? I can’t. Af­ter shoot­ing The Man With­out a Past – it took a week – I counted the brandy bot­tles. There were 26. But you can’t tell the dif­fer­ence.”

How is it pos­si­ble to di­rect a film when you’ve drunk that much brandy? Fo­cus­ing on the im­age must of­fer a few chal­lenges.

“When you are con­cen­trat­ing on a movie, it doesn’t mat­ter,” he says. “You are al­ways


Aki Kau­ris­mäki: ‘When you are on a movie, you are ei­ther to­tally drunk or to­tally sober.’ Pho­to­graph: Getty Images

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