Sunday, June 24, 2007

Lights in the Dusk

If it is still useful to invoke the old debate between form and content, the question of whether a work of art can subsist entirely on its stylistic excellence despite a void of substance, then Aki Kaurismaki's latest film Lights in the Dusk makes a convincing argument in favor of the former. A throwaway plot and indifferent characters should not obscure the film's oustanding formal qualities, and yet, shouldn't a work of art worthy of the name be required to say something? Kaurismaki renders the debate irrelevant as we succumb to his lovely pseudo-noir evocation of a nocturnal Helsinki, his perfect groupings of characters in static compositions augmented by impeccably timed zooms into a character's face, his overhead shots of city streets, the impossibly blond hair of the femme fatale.

The plot, derived from the standard noir set-up of films like Double Indemnity, feels mostly like a necessary burden to be gotten through between Kaurismaki's set pieces. Koistinen (Janne Hyytianen) is an uncouth security-guard with no friends and whose lack of romantic prospects earns him the mocking scorn of his co-workers. He later tells a woman he has "got rock-and-roll" inside him and claims to have ambitions of owning his own security company, but these statements belie the insistent passivity of his character, a being who seems scarcely to exist. One day, a beautiful blond woman (Maria Jarvenhelmi) sits across from him at a cafe. She starts talking to him. They start seeing each other. It turns out the woman works for a group of gangsters and is using him to obtain the security code and keys to a shopping plaza. The gangsters rob a jewelry store and implicate Koistinen. He refuses to denounce the woman and goes to jail for two years because, as the head gangster characterizes him, he is "loyal as a dog".

The downbeat plot obscures the pure pleasure Kaurismaki takes in staging his scenes. In one sequence, Koistinen, making his security rounds, finds a dog tied up outside a bar. Upon entering, he learns it belongs to three leather-clad toughs. Ever mindful of his duty, he confronts the three men about the dog who, we learn, has been kept tied up outside for a week. The men suggest they step outside through the back door and rather than follow them, Kaurismaki leaves his camera fixed on the men's table, their beers remaining in place. In the corner of the screen, another patron talks with his companion, oblivious of the impending violence. Half a minute later, the three men return to their place, laughing, and resume drinking their beers. Kaurismaki then cuts outside to reveal a bloodied Koistinen who makes his way back to the front of the bar before the screen abruptly fades to black. The director's clever staging elides the violence of the confrontation while emphasizing the relative monotony involved in the process. For Koistinen, it's just another day at the office, scarcely worth anyone's attention. Throughout the film, periodic moments of violence crop up but, as here, they almost always occur off screen, as if by showing them, Kaurismaki would disrupt the film's carefully modulated mood and continual sense of drift, a drift emphasized by Koistinen's circular movement both in this scene (in the front door, out the back door, back around to the front) and in several subsequent sequences where the circular pattern is repeated.

In another scene, later in the film, Kaurismaki frames his gangsters around a card table, playing poker and smoking cigars. The scene takes place after the incarceration of Koistinen and seems like a celebration of their success. The director places the four figures around a card table in the screen's foreground with a wall-length window in the right background. His camera remains fixed on the players as they throw down their cards and exhale smoke. Eventually, another figure emerges in the background: the blond woman appears on the left side of the screen with a vacuum cleaner and weaves in and out behind the foreground figures who fail to acknowledge her presence. Although she was instrumental in securing the stolen jewelry, she is not allowed to participate in the celebration, but must continue her service to the thankless gangsters by cleaning up after them. By placing the film's primary movement in the background and having the woman periodically obscured by the gangsters as she moves behind them, Kaurismaki deftly uses his composition to comment on the power interactions in the patriarchal criminal organization. Without the use of any camera movement, Kaurismaki gives us both a seemingly banal glimpse into the gangsters' leisure time and offers a simultaneous wordless commentary on the scene.

Koistinen's one chance of redemption in the film comes through the character of Aila (Maria Heiskanen), a woman who sells hot dogs out of a trailer by the river and whose gestures of kindness to Koistinen are repeatedly rejected. The weakest (or at least the most uneccessary) of the film's characters, the only advantage of her presence is to allow Kaurismaki to frame her trailer (with its red neon sign "Grilli") against the river in a lovely nightime composition. The only one of the film's characters who actively combats her pre-assigned role, she seems woefully out of place in the picture, a refugee from a more conventional film in which a perfunctory redemption is required by the exigencies of a standard narrative arc. Kaurismaki needen't have bothered. Redemption has no place in this world, and we don't need an Aila to remind us. Still, notwithstanding her presence, Kaurismaki has concocted a lovely little film. It may be all surface, but when the surface shines like this one does, we need not look for anything more profound.

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