Aki Kaurismäki—Finnish auteur, deadpan provocateur, renowned boozician, last of the red-hot existential modernists—has seen his window of international fashionability open and close. His bittersweet morbidity established him, with Ariel (1988), as a brand name, a kind of post-Bresson, post-punk Tom Waits, sore with drink and committed to staring at prole doldrums so steadfastly that the result was nervous comedy. (The placid dyspepsia of eight-time anti-star Matti Pellonpää was quickly recognized as an AK axiom.) In quick, imported succession, Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989), The Match Factory Girl (1990), and La Vie de Bohème (1991) cemented Kaurismäki’s lovably irascible style into a brand of hipness, born of forgotten jukeboxes, cigarette trances, mopey inarticulateness, and outskirt wage slavery. He was suddenly the coolest of the cool.
Today, the success of The Man Without a Past notwithstanding, Kaurismäki has become a sidebar, not nearly flashy or flattering enough to summon distributors, middle-class crowds, or urban buzz with any reliability. Yet as the BAM retro makes clear, he has been rashly underappreciated, then and now. A problem child of Godard and Beckett, Kaurismäki is a cunning intelligence interrogating the empathic rhythms of moviewatching by way of Job tragedy and comatose vaudeville. (For him, grim melodrama and toast-dry farce aren’t extremes to be cocktailed; they’re already intimate vicinities.) That his scenario writing often seems to have the shrugging spontaneity of action painting is to the point—your experience is never pre-ordained. Watching Kaurismäki movies—which rarely exceed 90 minutes in length—you may guffaw when no one else on earth would, and vice versa.
The quadruple crown of 1988-91—the latter two of which, at least, are incisive world-beaters—is just a cross section of the Finn’s amazingly consistent output. Kaurismäki made four films before Ariel (not including shorts), the first of which, Crime and Punishment (1983), begins in a Helsinki slaughterhouse and morosely proceeds to re-envision Dostoyevsky’s perfect crime as part suicidal will to power and part festering grief. It may be the only completely grim movie Kaurismäki ever made, depending on how liberally you define the later movies’ “comedy.” There’s little ambiguity in Calamari Union (1985), a six-cylinder absurdist screwball about 15 men named Frank (and one named Pekka) and their doomed attempt to simply traverse Helsinki to reach a rumored suburb. Buñuelian not only in the narrative’s dreamy frustrations (public transportation is mysteriously treacherous, and lost Franks keep climbing out of sewers and getting thrown from atop moving cars), but also, in the filmmaking’s confident matter-of-factness, Union is a minor masterpiece of retro-surrealism.
After establishing his tonal boundaries, Kaurismäki found his distinctive laugh-or-cry balance and socialist footing with Shadows in Paradise (1986) and Hamlet Goes Business (1987), the first a soft-edged tragi-romance uniting Pellonpää’s implacable garbageman and Kati Outinen’s kohl-eyed store clerk, the second a factory satire in which the Shakespearean hero struggles to thwart the attempt by his dead father’s company to corner the rubber duck market. The emptiness of work on the bleak peripheries of Europe, and the crueler no-exit of unemployment, became Kaurismäki’s decisive theme. Just as the mine closing began Ariel‘s downward spiral, a comical office layoff sparks the English-language I Hired a Contract Killer (1990), in which Jean-Pierre Léaud’s ambition to have himself offed begets one slow-moving cock-up after another. Drifting Clouds (1996), a fatalistic semi-sequel to Shadows in Paradise, is as tough-skinned and heartbreaking as any film ever made about joblessness, while Take Care of Your Scarf, Tatiana (1994) is a relative, but altogether perfect, lark of a road movie that nonetheless limns a desperate Euro-anomie along the back roads of penny-ante capitalism.
Because they are all mercilessly of a piece, all Kaurismäki films are required viewing (but not, I’d advise, in mass quantities). They all have the relaxed, expert air of master blues riffs, existing for no better reason than Kaurismäki’s movie madness and weathered humanism. His largest departure, the dialogue-free Juha (1999), another socioeconomic melodrama, with Outinen leaving her husband’s farm only to be converted into an urban whore, turns out to be paradigmatic, and a reminder of how close to the purity and humanity of silent cinema the man has been all along.