Aki Kaurismäki’s “proletariat trilogy” opens, appropriately, with the color blue. The first image in Shadows in Paradise, the earliest film by the Finnish director included in Eclipse’s box set, is an ice-blue garage door parting like a curtain as garbage-truck drivers pass through, wearing matching uniforms. The moody tones conjure up an atmosphere of muted melancholy that threatens to become overpowering, but then two of the cheerless garbage men trade words. “I’m not going to die behind a wheel,” one says. “Then where?” “Behind a desk.” Humor and perseverance, no matter how ludicrous and out of place they may seem, keep despair at bay in Kaurismäki’s stories of sourpussed outsiders. Life in these films is a matter of disappointment, frustration and injustice, a perpetually overcast sky occasionally broken by the delicacy of a gesture or a good rockabilly song. Kaurismäki’s worldview is distinctively humanistic but resolutely astringent, and watching it can be akin to tasting a strong brand of whiskey best enjoyed in small cups (not for nothing are so many of his films barely over 70 minutes).
Shadows in Paradise, the director’s third feature, offers a catalog of Kaurismäki motifs: abrupt beatings, ballroom songs, time in prison and the absolute refusal to crack a smile. Garbage man Nikander (Matti Pellonpää) is, like many a Kaurismäki character, a lone soul glumly enduring life’s whims. A glimmer of hope comes in a furtive romance with supermarket cashier-girl Illona (Kati Outinen), but love here is no less capricious than betrayal. Like his American compadre Jim Jarmusch, Kaurismäki sees the world as a succession of seedy apartments and forlorn roads in which people live moment by moment, an eternal struggle that, industrial settings or not, has less to do with class than with the basic human need for connection. Also like Jarmusch, his characters’ escalating miseries are always a step away from absurdist comedy. In one scene, an hotelier (played Kaurismäki himself) reads a list of amenities and prices to the shelterless Illona before casually mentioning that they’re out of rooms; later, when asked what keeps him from running away with his beloved, Nikander deadpans, “Horror, fear and this job.” Often compared to Bresson, Kaurismäki is closer to Buster Keaton.
Kaurismäki prunes and distills narrative, but he’s no monk: There’s real, terse virtuosity to his use of color and camera movement, including a terrific overhead tracking shot of factory machinery scored to Casey Bill Weldon’s “W.P.A. Blues” in Ariel. The prole hero this time around is Taisto (Turo Pajala), a mineworker who leaves his provincial town in a Cadillac after hearing his mentor’s advice (“Don’t look back,” the old man says, moments before blowing his brains out). A stopover at a stylized homeless shelter follows, then a prison sentence that aligns him with cellmate Mikkonen (Matti Pellonpää) and propels him into the Finnish underworld. As in Shadows in Paradise, a tentative relationship (here marriage with Susanna Haavisto’s forthright meter maid) promises precarious redemption, though a happy ending (the title refers not to Shakespeare’s sprite of innocence, but to a Mexico-bound boat) is included expressly as a mocking reminder of real life’s dearth of happy endings. What diminishes Ariel, strangely, isn’t its parade of misfortunes but its attempts at whimsy. By the time a Finnish version of “Over the Rainbow” swells over the closing credits, the drollness has come perilously close to the cuteness of, say, Napoleon Dynamite.
No trace of cuteness can be found in The Match Factory Girl, the toughest and most concentrated of the trilogy’s tragicomedies. The film’s theme is stated, with characteristic bluntness, in the opening sequence, as a tree trunk is thrown into a machine and whittled down to the size of a matchstick—an unstressed but merciless metaphor for what life’s severities do to the spirit. Just as jail and the outside world seem often interchangeable to the protagonists of the earlier films, for Iris (Kati Outinen, cementing her status as Kaurismäki’s sublimely lugubrious muse) there’s little difference between working at the factory and dining at home with her parents. At the dance hall, the band sings of a dreamland of flowers in bloom while Iris sips soda alone after every other girl has been asked for a dance: It’s a cruelly funny moment, but the gravity achieved by the director and the actress complicates our laughter. The many calamities that befall the heroine bring to mind another, more famous match girl, yet whereas the naïf of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale embraces her tragic destiny, Iris decides to finally stand up and challenge her fate. The ensuing series of events, as compassionate as they are scabrous, provides not just a terrific, cathartic punchline to the story, but also illustrates the balance between human acquiescence and resistance at the heart of Kaurismäki’s art.
Though not polished to Criterion’s standards, image and sound on all three films are sturdy enough to do justice to the director’s sharply desolate compositions and fondness for tangos.
No extras except liner notes, as expected of the Eclipse line.
Kaurismäki in a high-spirited mood: "Everything’s okay tonight. I don’t know about tomorrow though. The weather might change."