There’s a festival of Aki Kaurismaki’s films at the Champo, and I’ve managed to see four features there in the space of a week. I like very much his works even though until now I had only seen his ‘blockbuster’ hit, ‘The man without a past’, which enjoyed considerable success (unfortunately I saw this when I was in Italy, so I saw the version which had been dubbed into Italian, quite bizzare, Finnish people speaking perfect Italian). His films just don’t come to the cinema very often, even here in Paris.
So one Thursday night a week or so ago I found myself once more settling into comfortable red cinema seats of the Champo for Kaurismaki’s “La Vie de Boheme”, based on a hundred-year old novel by Henri Murger. The first image we see is one of a rooftop in Paris, a jumbled frieze of chimney pots and slate. I realised, belatedly, that this film would not be in Finnish, but in almost all likelihood would be in French — as indeed it was. It was film that Kaurismaki had wanted to make for years, a project that he’d had in his mind for the better part of a decade. The story of starving artists in the city of lights, trying to realise the eternal dream of every sensitive soul throughout the world to come and live in Paris, to create great works of art that would resonate down through the centuries. Er…but…Kaurismaki’s artists will never quite get there, it’s clear.
This much is clear from the start of film. Marcel, a writer, accepts the offer of the barman at his local brasserie to read his text. It would be fine, he says, to hear the voice of the street. Baf! Before we know it he pulls from his bag a manuscript larger than the latest Thomas Pynchon novel. And probably even harder to read.
We are introduce to the other “artists” in short order, a composer Schaunard and an artist, Rodolfo, played impassively as ever by Matti Pellonpää. There are many wonderful set pieces in the film: after once again collectively hitting rock bottom, Schaunard invites his friends around to eat (they are all of course in a state of constant hunger). On their plates they find a frankfurter wedged between a day-old baguette. Ouch! But next they are treated to a performance of Schaunard’s latest composition, for piano and child’s police siren, which ends by him triumphantly banging his head against the piano keyboard. Rodolfo is the sensitive soul. We see him painting by his open window, Paris spread out before him, attired in black beret and black necktie, holding an easel in his hand. All artists are like this in Paris, no? His paintings, it has to be honestly said, are not exactly paradigm-shifting. The worst one is certainly that of his dog, Baudelaire. Rudolfo and Schaunard speak French with a strong foreigner’s accent (tell me about it), not in the least because neither of them, in real life, understand the language at all. They learned their lines phonetically.
All three of them live in less than salubrious conditions, in the kind of conditions that all “artists” were supposed to live in. Cold water walk-ups. It turns out that Kaurismaki didn’t film in Paris at all, but in Malakoff, to the south. It was only outside town that he could find a place which resembled what he imagined in his mind this Paris of “La vie de boheme” to be. Today, all the locations that appear in the film no longer exist. Kaurismaki’s story seems to take place some in the 1960s, the buildings have that edge to them, there is that feeling of things which have been well worn in.
In the second part of the film, Rudolfo falls in love — always an interesting proposition in Kaurismaki’s films, where the expression of sentiment never comes easy. He falls for a French girl, Mimi. He returns home to his apartment one evening and finds her sleeping on the stairs at his door; she has nowhere to stay for the night. He graciously gives her his bed and tells her that he will go and sleep ‘with friends’. The next morning, we see him waking up in the cemetary. After all this, the film has a very unexpected and surprising ending, given that the tone of the first three-quarters of the film was so light. We are a little shocked.
And the lights came up at the Champo, and in the cinema with us was Evelene Didi, the French actress who played Mimi. She talked to us about working with Mr. Kaurismaki, how they shot the film, about Kaurismaki’s image of Paris. In once scene, there is a departure from a train station, a long goodbye. But it was too expensive to really film at the train station! Instead, they improvised: clouds of steam were provided by the staff chef boiling water in every available pot and pan. Meanwhile, shadow heads and hats in a cut-out panel sliding across the wall signals a departing train. Bizzarely enough, it works…
Despite the unexpected ending, I found “La Vie Boheme” to be one of Kaurismaki’s most hilarious films. What I appreciate most is the straight, deadpan delivery of his actors; no-one ever smiles, which can create a somewhat surreal feeling at times. Evelene Didi told us that upon meeting Kaurismaki for the first time, his first commandment to her was that she was absolutely not to smile! In it’s way, this makes everything even more funny, like in Chaplin films (of which Kaurismaki is a big fan). Fine. I am going to go now and gaze wistfully now across the rooftops of Paris. But I need a dog.