The Finnish Line


The consummate people’s drunkard-poet and architect of cosmic blue-collar doldrums, Aki Kaurismäki is also the most sanguine demigod in international filmmaking’s higher echelon. No Cannes winner could give less of a shit about publicity, power, fame, or aesthetics. Ask him what moves him to make a new film: “I check the bank accounts and see they are empty.” Inquire about his motifs or stylistic character: “I never analyze, so . . . ” What about the stateside failure to release the three perfectly lovely features he made before this year’s Oscar-nominated The Man Without a Past? “The U.S. market offers peanuts—less than Romania. It can be an insult. But that’s OK. I can’t blame them entirely—my last film was silent, after all. Anyway, I don’t think anybody, anywhere, is getting rich off of my films.”

Of course, The Man Without a Past already has a public pedigree, not only by way of Best Director and Best Actress wins at Cannes but from Kaurismäki’s uncharacteristically making the papers last fall after he’d canceled his visit to the New York Film Festival in protest of Abbas Kiarostami’s vetoed visa. “I heard about it in the airport, 20 minutes before the plane left Copenhagen; I was standing there with my bags. I wanted to come; it’s always a great audience there. I had to decide fast.”

Returning to American theaters after nearly a full decade’s absence, Kaurismäki’s voice—eloquently minimalist, outrageously deadpan, catastrophically ironic—has been much missed. (“I decided to make a film,” I remember him saying in the press notes for 1989’s The Match Factory Girl, “that will make Robert Bresson seem like a director of epic action pictures.”) Speaking from his vacation home in Portugal, where he was sharing a drinker’s holiday with a houseful of running-amok hound dogs, Kaurismäki conscientiously scoffs at questions about his art. “Well, I don’t let my actors act. They look at my finger and read their lines. So, is that funny? My films are mostly tragic comedies—I don’t know if I ever really made a straight comedy. I don’t want to get too serious, but I don’t want to pull laughs out of the audience, either . . . I don’t know, the world is full of sex films and fast comedies, so I made something closer to me myself. Not too much talk. It’s not a particularly Finnish thing, it’s just me. Wanna buy a dog?”

That Kaurismäki manages to maintain his blip on the cultural radar despite a gruff resistance to the global entertainment industry’s demands is reason enough to be grateful that he is out there directing and kvetching and boozing on the wintry edge of the Old World. But Kaurismäki, who’s as much a Helsinki bar owner as a filmmaker, also remains committed to the disenfranchised classes. “I have no interest in beautiful people—glamour, symmetry. I like an actor whose life has left marks on their face. That’s real. Ninety percent of the patrons in my bar are unemployed, so I hang around with losers and ordinary people, mostly. There’s nothing interesting about rich people, or bourgeoisie. You know, it’s ‘Should I take cocaine before, after, or during the party?’ I think beer is more honest.”

His view of the contemporary scene? “I don’t see most movies, very seldom, once or twice a year. Except at festivals. I saw everything when I was young, five, six movies a day. But now, I watch old films, silent films. I love L’Atalante. Behind my very rough cover, I am a sentimental old sheep.”