Aki Kaurismäki is at it again, refurbishing his previous work and pawning it off as if it were new. His latest, Lights in the Dusk, is The Match Factory Girl without the catharsis—a dry wheeze of Helsinki still life about a working-class hangdog, Koistinen (Janne Hyytiäinen), who can’t get any respect. Deliberately or not, co-workers forget his name, and those who don’t address him as if he had more than one head. He accepts embarrassment like clockwork, and though he flirts with romance with two women, he relates most to a pooch that’s been left alone outside a bar for a week. Light on rationale, his crisis is both existential and pointless.
“I don’t know anybody,” Koistinen says in one scene, which isn’t exactly true but indicates the self-imposed space he props between himself and the rest of the world. Koistinen gets involved with a blond femme fatale with a passing resemblance to a young Karen Black and who greets every form of entertainment (movies, live music) with the same torpid expression. She scams him for his keys and the secret code to the mall he patrols as a night watchman, and when her boss and his goons pilfer a jewelry store, Koistinen is sent to prison.
Kaurismäki’s comedy is so deadpan it’s not, and his fringy aesthetic is evocative of silent film and Edward Hopper paintings. (Lights in the Dusk suggests what it might be like to stare at Bill Murray in a coma for 75 minutes.) His best films (Shadows in Paradise, Drifting Clouds) strike a discomfiting balance between the tragic and the absurd, but Lights in the Dusk is almost as ambivalent as Koistinen, bound to alienate the filmmaker’s coffee-drinking, cigarette-smoking base with a tone that’s almost holier-than-thou, always teetering on the edge of self-parody. This may be the fault of the story’s noirish pretenses, which confuse Kaurismäki into favoring cynicism above humanity. One caveat: The great final shot hints at the light that never shines from the film’s dusk. I smell sequel.