Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Deadpan ache: Lights in the Dusk

The Helsinki of Aki Kaurismäki’s Lights in the Dusk (Laitakaupungin valot) is a permanently overcast city possessing what should rightfully be deemed one very, very particular power of seduction, one that probably speaks directly to the hearts of some of us while making little impression on others. Seemingly dusted with melancholy, the cityscape is an apparition of earth tones and dim reflections in anonymous glass towers, expansive alleyways, skeletal industrial structures looming over shipyards.

Caught in the generally crepuscular Nordic glow, the setting, like the story, could be from today or 60 years ago. People gather to drink and hover, some arguing the diverse merits of Russian literary giants, some standing in clumps to throb before an almost comically earnest hard rock act. Whatever their numbers, alliances or activities, these Fins are all of them captured within compositions that strongly summon up Edward Hopper paintings nursing a Technicolor hangover, imparting an unmistakable loneliness only heightened by the quiet beauty of their surroundings.

Kaurismäki’s camera however will quickly focus its attention on the solitary figures: a homeless kid, a neglected pooch, and an anachronistically handsome, painfully awkward security guard named Koistinen (Janne Hyytiäinen), the sympathetic schmuck of the center of this exquisitely gloomy neo-noir. Lights in the Dusk is the third installment in Kaurismäki’s ‘Loser Trilogy,’ following 2002’s The Man Without a Past. While the film as a whole arguably adds little novelty to the writer/director’s exploration of the theme, Koistinen is doubtlessly the biggest loser of the lot. And though conveyed entirely in Kaurismäki’s characteristically –some might say perversely– rigorous deadpan, Koistinen’s tale is also quite possibly the most moving of them all, too. Okay, so long as one can be moved by something like a simple gesture, an implication, or the placement of a quartet of fresh bagels before the object of one’s deepest affections.

The plot of Lights in the Dusk is made of pared-down essence, tropes selected and renovated with great affection but precious little gratuitous indulgence. Koistinen is an outsider even among his scant workmates. He boasts to the kind woman who tends the all-night food stand that he’ll be heading his own security operation some day soon, his business aspirations simultaneously humble and hapless, a spiritual cousin to the barber who seeks a new career in dry cleaning in The Man Who Wasn’t There. Truth is Koistinen has few prospects of any kind, and lives in almost total isolation –that is until he’s approached out of the blue one day by Mirja (Maria Järvenhelmi), a mysterious woman with the most beguiling lips and obscure agenda. His hungry heart is hers from first blush, which means his fate is sealed from here onward.

Mirja is a Mata Hari Hitchcock blonde, a fame fatale working for some antiseptic mobster type who knows a real sucker when he sees one. When she first appears, the normally still camera pushes in on her the same way it does the mobster, an elegant move that binds the two in our memories and exemplifies the austerity of Kaurismäki’s approach, which crafts a distinctive style from economy itself. (The whole thing’s over in 74 minutes.) No shot is too long, no pan uncalled for, no facial muscle moved that isn’t fundamentally necessary here, though so much of it is nonetheless eccentric –a guy sharpens a steak knife with the base of a mug– often dryly funny, and shot through with repressed emotion and plenty of terrific zingers. If you know this guy’s movies you know exactly what I mean: Kaurismäki’s is the comic Bresson.

Mirja’s discomfort with shamelessly using Koistinen as a way of helping the mobsters steal some jewels from one of the properties under his watch is palpable, in an inferred sort of way. Early on in their non-love affair it’s already clear to both that everything’s a ruse –Mirja gets to a point she doesn’t even make the slightest effort to fool him anymore– but Koistinen can’t help but do anything other than obey Mirja’s will, even when it spells out complete ruin. It’s all so strange, even frustrating, on the surface but perfectly heartbreaking underneath. This stuff works on me, even more with repeated viewings.

The title evokes twilit haziness, a moment when signs of life or signs of hope blur into the day’s fading embers. The film’s complimentary story and tone meanwhile do provide us with some consolation, acts of solidarity, will, and enduring love that linger in the margins of its milieu, waiting for our hero to see past the haze and embrace what’s really present and attainable. So even though Kaurismäki lets his loser take a licking, and flashes it all past our eyes with merciless efficiency, there’s a warmth waiting at the end of all this, a candle in the window that should charm and reward each of us predisposed to such subtle delights.

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