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
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