Where to begin with Aki Kaurismäki

As his first film in six years, Fallen Leaves, touches down in cinemas, we plot a beginner’s path through the beguilingly bleak and droll universe of Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismäki.

Shadows in Paradise (1986)

Why this might not seem so easy

He’s slowed down lately, with just five post-2000 features, but in the 1980s and 90s Aki Kaurismäki was one of the most prolific filmmakers in Europe – indeed, he and his older brother Mika were once responsible for one-fifth of the Finnish film industry’s annual feature output.

With 18 cinema features (plus a feature-length TV movie) and 13 shorts, plus two concert films and appearances in other people’s films (including title roles, as in Mika’s 1980 directing debut The Liar), it’s a daunting body of work if approached from scratch. But working through it is hardly a chore: few other filmmakers are as consistently likely to make you feel just that little bit better about humanity afterwards.

On the face of it, his new film Fallen Leaves (2023), his first in six years, appears to traverse very familiar territory: a bittersweet romance between two working-class people that’s at least as much off as on thanks to unfortunate misunderstandings, playing out against a backdrop of unfeeling authoritarianism both locally (their employers) and internationally (radio news about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine), and with an adorably cute scene-stealing dog. However, much as with Kaurismäki’s self-confessed role model Yasujiro Ozu, it’s the infinitely subtle variations between this and his previous films that often give the most pleasure.

Alma Pöysti and Jussi Vatanen in Fallen Leaves
Alma Pöysti and Jussi Vatanen in Fallen Leaves (2023)Mubi

And ‘pleasure’ is very much the operative word. Despite his films’ regular recourse to tragic upsets, their invariably grim-faced characters, and indeed Kaurismäki’s regular insistence that he’s a terrible director, fans know that for the last 40 years there are few things more delightful than a trip to what his actors refer to as ‘Akiland’, a never-never land somewhere between the 1930s and the 1980s, where people drive Cadillacs, listen to old-time rock’n’roll, dance the tango, and issue such wise aphorisms as “Life is short and miserable – be as merry as you can.”  And whether shooting in colour or (surprisingly often) black and white, regular cinematographer Timo Salminen’s lighting is often instantly recognisable from a single random frame.

The best place to start – Drifting Clouds

With at least half a dozen candidates for the top spot – some might even say a dozen – this is a close-run thing, but the sublime Drifting Clouds (1996) is in many ways the perfect Aki Kaurismäki film. Long-term regulars Kati Outinen and Kari Väänänen star as a couple who are made redundant from their jobs (a head waitress and a tram driver) and spend much of the running time struggling to survive.

Drifting Clouds (1996)

Which sounds like the last word in social-realist grimness – and at least one British critic made the mistake of over-hastily jumping to that conclusion – but Kaurismäki is constantly alert to small, absurdist touches, both visual and verbal. In one of the most memorable dialogue exchanges in his entire output, Outinen’s character Ilona tries to get a job in another restaurant, only to be told by its owner that she’s too old. Protesting that she’s only 38, the deadpan response is: “Exactly. You could drop dead any minute.”

But, as so often in Kaurismäki’s films, it all works out for them in the end, and the final shots would make the flintiest heart leap for joy. Indeed, Kaurismäki has consistently delivered some of the most rapturously upbeat endings in all cinema. There’s also a quietly lovely touch in the briefly glimpsed portrait of regular male lead Matti Pellonpää, who would undoubtedly have appeared in this as well had he not died in 1995 at the age of just 44. 

What to watch next

Lights in the Dusk (2006)

If you like Drifting Clouds and/or Fallen Leaves, the obvious next ports of call should be any or preferably all of Shadows in Paradise (1986), Ariel (1988), The Man Without a Past (2002) and Lights in the Dusk (2006), which all revolve around shyly awkward romances. In Take Care of Your Scarf, Tatjana (1994), meanwhile, romance never really gets off the ground, as its two male protagonists are so nervous around women of any kind, let alone a pair of chatty extroverts from former Soviet satellites, that even small talk becomes agonising. 

And while it’s recognisably part of the same group, when Kaurismäki made the almost unbearably bleak The Match Factory Girl (1990), he said he wanted “to make a film that would make Robert Bresson seem like a director of epic action pictures”, producing a film so stripped to barest essentials that the first on-screen dialogue (“A small beer”) comes a full 13 minutes in, and the rest isn’t exactly garrulous. But it’s also the strongest showcase for Kati Outinen, the female lead in more than half his output, as a desperately downtrodden woman whose attitude slowly shifts from self-pity to cold-blooded revenge.

Le Havre (2011)Curzon

The much more recent Le Havre (2011) and The Other Side of Hope (2017) are more directly political, and consciously inspired by the French Popular Front films of the 1930s. Kaurismäki once cited Jean Renoir’s Toni (1935) as one of his favourite films and shows a similar empathy towards impoverished immigrants, whether a young Gabonese boy in Le Havre or a Syrian man in The Other Side of Hope. In terms of cast, language and theme, if not a direct narrative connection, Le Havre is also a quasi-sequel to 1992’s similarly French-language La Vie de Bohème, whose protagonist Rodolfo is also an immigrant.

There are also the “wacky Aki” films: offbeat comedies whose best-known example is Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989), in which the resplendently bequiffed band of the title, having failed to attract any local interest in its peculiar blend of rock’n’roll and polka, attempts to make it big in America but ends up playing to largely bemused audiences in the smallest of US small towns. Before that, he made Calamari Union (1985), in which 15 men, all named Frank (plus a hanger-on named Pekka), try to escape a run-down part of Helsinki, and Hamlet Goes Business (1987), which restages Shakespeare’s play in the boardrooms of a Finnish rubber-duck manufacturing corporation in which Hamlet is the majority shareholder.  

Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989)

And we shouldn’t forget the concert films, The Saimaa Gesture (1981, co-directed with Mika) and the wondrous Total Balalaika Show (1994). The latter, a record of a one-off Helsinki gig between the Leningrad Cowboys and the Alexandrov Red Army Chorus is impossible to watch without sporting a gormless grin throughout, whether to ‘Happy Together’ repurposed as a hymn to comradely unity or a mash-up between ‘Gimme All Your Lovin’, the Hallelujah Chorus and the Soviet National Anthem that somehow makes musical sense.

Where not to start

Kaurismäki is so consistent that there are no out-and-out duds in his filmography; even the oft-maligned Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses (1994) has plenty of inspired moments, although it should definitely be one of the later entries in a viewing marathon. The same is true of Crime and Punishment (1983); although it’s genuinely fascinating seeing how much Kaurismäki nailed his instantly recognisable style from his very first feature, it’s easier to appreciate this the more familiar you are with his subsequent work.

Similarly, while Londoners will be enthralled by the way that he turns the city’s less-trodden backwaters into part of the Kaurismäki universe in I Hired a Contract Killer (1990), this is helped by prior knowledge of that universe’s characteristics. And the dialogue-free Juha (1999) – effectively the second silent adaptation of Juhani Aho’s classic 1911 novel, following Mauritz Stiller’s Johan (1921) – is also perhaps not one for newcomers. But every Kaurismäki is worth seeing once, and once you start you’ll find it hard to stop.

Fallen Leaves is in cinemas, including BFI Southbank, from 1 December.

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