Aki Kaurismäki wanted to adapt Henri Murger’s Scènes de la vie de bohème since first reading it in the ’70s, but it would be another 15 years before the Finnish filmmaker could realize his dream in the only city that could possibly host Murger’s iconic narrative. Except that it couldn’t. Paris was no longer the Paris of 1851, or even 1951. Café culture was a memory. So Kaurismäki moved his crew to the southern suburb of Malakoff, which held traces of his dimmer, more decrepit vision of the city of light. He shot in sterling black and white, which leaves more room to dream, and has a way of blurring our sense of time. La vie de bohème (1992) is one of Kaurismäki’s most transporting and wondrous works, characteristically economical and deadpan, yet brimming with emotion and drama, with fatalism, snap decisions, love at first sight, and hastily forged alliances. It’s funny, inventive, occasionally absurd, peppered with deus ex machina yet tragic, devoted to an idea of life, art and romance that leaves no room for failure, even when failure is inevitable. It’s now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Criterion.
The cast is a dream. Matti Pellonpää plays Rodolfo, an Albanian painter, and Kari Väänänen is Schaunard, an Irish composer of vaudevillian musique concrete. (These Fins knew not a lick of the French and thus learned their lines phonetically.) André Wilms is the logorrhetic writer Marcel Marx, a character Wilms would revisit in Kaurismäki’s Le Havre (2011). Evelyne Didi plays Mimi, who loves Rodolfo but finds it hard to bear his endemic poverty. (And it should be said that, in just a few scenes, Kaurismäki and his collaborators do more to dignify and deepen the women in this chronicle of male-centric bohemian life than every Beat Generation movie combined.) Jean-Pierre Léaud, beloved star of so much early Truffaut and Godard, plays Rodolfo’s affluent patron, an impulsive art collector who materializes like a gruff angel at just the right moments. There are cameos from directors Sam Fuller, whose Pick-up on South Street (1953) is alluded to during a pickpocketing scene, and Louis Malle, playing a diner who takes pity on Rodolfo after said pocket has been picked. The film also features Laika, a dog, in the role of Baudelaire, also a dog. Which is to say that a dog plays a dog, one named after a poet and contemporary of Murger’s. He does a marvellous job.
La vie de bohème seems timeless, yet part of its charm derives from its precise sense of place, one where shadows are many and long, where the wallpaper’s peeling in every garret and berets are worn without irony, where a two-headed trout smiles upon the foundation of a friendship, where the wipers of a three-wheeled car wipe in time to Little Willie John when lovers reunite. Magic and squalor are close neighbours in this world, as they were in the production: when Kaurismäki couldn’t afford to shoot a farewell scene in the Gare d'Austerlitz, he found an aluminium garage door and projected light on it through a stencil cut to resemble the windows of a moving train. And real-life concerns creep into the fantasy. Typically for Kaurismäki, immigrant communities, outsiders and the poor stick together without making a big deal of it. Solidarity is as much a matter of survival as sentiment. But it can’t save these bohemians from their destinies. Nor has it saved Kaurismäki from the brutalities of film financing. In the first ten years of his career he made 12 features. In the last ten, he’s made two. C’est la vie? Here’s hoping that the prospects for this one-of-a-kind filmmaker aren’t as dismal as they were for Rodolfo, Schaunard, Mimi or Marcel.