The Aki Kaurismäki Collection Volume 2 Review
The three films in The Aki Kaurismäki Collection Volume 2 (Take Care Of Your Scarf, Tatyana, Drifting Clouds and Juha) may not have a thematic connection in the same way that the three films that constitute the ‘Worker’s Trilogy’ of The Aki Kaurismäki Collection Volume 1 are linked (Drifting Clouds in fact belongs to the ‘Losers Trilogy’) but they are unquestionably representative of the diversity of the work of the Finnish director of the miserable, deadpan comedy and may even have connecting elements that may not at first be apparent.
There is a scene in Drifting Clouds that gives a clue to the influences that are evident in Kaurismäki’s work and perhaps unites the three very different films included here. It occurs when an outraged Lauri storms out of a cinema with Ilona to demand his money back (even though his sister who works there has let them in for free). In the background are posters for three films - Night On Earth, L’Argent and L’Atalante. The dry, comedic tone of Jim Jarmusch is clearly evident in the first film included in this set, Take Care Of Your Scarf, Tatyana, the difficulty of retaining one’s moral integrity when pushed to the limit by twists of fate and social injustice in Bresson’s L’Argent is certainly evoked in Drifting Clouds, while the qualities of Jean Vigo are certainly to the forefront in Kaurismäki silent cinema tribute Juha. It’s not clear which if any of the films has so enraged Lauri, though perhaps like the reaction of the Finnish public to Kaurismäki’s own films, any one of them could have hit a bit too close to home to be entertaining to the tram driver who has lost his job and is seeing his life and dreams fall gradually apart around him.
It may be stretching things to consider in this scene a thematic connection between the three films included here, but seeing the films in this way does at least show the variety and the individual strengths of Kaurismäki’s work that might not always be evident behind the surface similarities of their plots and characters.
Take Care Of Your Scarf, Tatyana (1994)
Even by Aki Kaurismäki’s standards, Take Care Of Your Scarf, Tatyana is filmmaking stripped down to its most basic elements. Featuring two characters who live with only one single-minded obsession – one to drink vodka, the other to drink coffee – and have nothing much to say to each other that doesn’t involve car parts, it’s pretty much a one-joke movie. It’s a good joke though and one that keeps rewarding in this almost perfect little film.
Our little-man “heroes” in ordinary routine jobs here are Valto (Mato Valtonen) and Reino (Matti Pellonpää). Valto is a seamster who is pushed over the edge when he runs out of coffee. Buying himself a plug-in coffee-maker, he picks up his car which is in for repair and takes vodka-guzzling car-mechanic Reino along with him, the two of them heading out on the road, each of them on a binge with their favourite tipple. On the way they pick up two foreign hitchhikers – Tatyana (Kati Outinen) from Estonia and Klavdia (Kirsi Tykkyläinen) from Russia – who are on their way to the harbour to catch the boat to Tallinn.
Overdosing on coffee and vodka has the expected effect on the two men, but still doesn’t alter their basic make-up, which is that of two sullen, uncommunicative, inexpressive hicks. There’s nothing particularly likeable about the two men in the first place - Reino in particular feels vaguely threatened by the more “sophisticated” city-types from Helsinki, but in turn makes fun of the “yokels” in Lapland. The Russian ladies trail along in the wake of these less than charming individuals who barely seem to have registered their existence – or perhaps they are just too shy to acknowledge their presence. Unexpectedly, Kaurismäki finds moments of humour and tenderness in such a set-up.
How much mileage you can get out of such material is inevitably limited. The director knows that it’s worth about 60 minutes and you don’t get a minute more than that. As a consequence, it’s hard to imagine that Take Care Of Your Scarf, Tatyana could be any funnier. Filmed in black-and-white - which only emphasises its resemblance in tone to Jim Jarmusch - not a gesture is wasted, the film full of moments of visual and observational humour, Kaurismäki regulars Matti Pellonpää as Reino and Kati Outinen as Tatyana in particular registering discomfort and resignation with touching precision. The minimal script is pretty sharp as well, and inevitably the rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack adds character to the proceedings. Sheer deadpan perfection.
Drifting Clouds (1996)
If Take Care Of Your Scarf, Tatyana shows that Kaurismäki can do the one-note deadpan comedy better than everyone else, the great Finnish director is untouchable among modern directors at depicting the strength of the human spirit to overcome adversity, cruel fate and an uncaring society. Drifting Clouds goes deeper into misery than even The Match Factory Girl (1990), but correspondingly it achieves ever greater and more uplifting truths.
Again, there is nothing special about the main characters – they are just ordinary people in ordinary jobs. Lauri (Kari Väänänen) is a tram driver and Ilona (Kati Outinen ) is the head-waiter at the Dubrovnik - a once fashionable restaurant that has seen better times. They are not well-off, but manage to get by, although the new television they have bought will have to be paid-off in instalments over four years like most of their other furnishings. When Lauri is laid-off it makes things just that bit more difficult, but they face a real crisis when the manager of the Dubrovnik is forced to sell-up in order to pay her debts.
Dealing with unemployment, depression, alcoholism and a society that is going to the dogs, Drifting Clouds doesn’t appear to be too optimistic. “Life is short and miserable. Have fun while you can”, Ilona’s former colleague Melartin (Sakari Kuosmanen) tells her, as he works on drinking himself into oblivion. This is just after Ilona has been told that she is unlikely to find employment, since at 38 she “could drop dead at any minute”. Despite further set-backs however and driven to extremes, Ilona and Lauri refuse to submit to despair. They have a sense of pride in being gainfully employed, in having a role, responsibility and a duty, in retaining a sense of integrity and never accepting defeat in the face of cruel fate. Fate has a part to play – as it often does in Kaurismäki films – but it’s not beyond the power of his characters to dream of changing it. If fate can work against them, perhaps it can also work for them? These are beautiful sentiments in a beautiful film.
Kaurismäki handles this with customary brilliance and not without a wicked undercurrent of miserable black humour, superbly deadpanned by his actors. The director even has time to pay tribute to Matti Pellonpää, the wonderful character actor who best represented the typical Kaurismäki underdog. Having died the previous year, Pellonpää is represented by the child in a photograph, and even without knowing who it is, the simple image of the child carries weight in the film. In his choice of music, Kaurismäki also excels himself here. Finnish tango this time takes prominence over the usual rock ‘n’ roll music score, since Drifting Clouds is not about dreaming of a better world, but about the bitterness of cruel fate. It gradually gives way to nihilistic rock and then onto boppy pop music. Even though they are not subtitled (an unfortunate and exceptional omission for this film), the songs and music could almost tell the whole story on their own. Truly a masterful work.
Kaurismäki films aren’t normally filled with dialogue and exposition, and there is a certain nostalgia in his films for classic filmmaking methods, so it shouldn’t be much of a surprise for any fan of the director’s work to see him actually make a silent movie. A remake of Johan, Mauritz Stiller’s Finnish 1921 silent adaptation of a Juhani Aho novel, Kaurismäki’s 1999 version is also in black-and-white, with intertitles and just a music score.
Marja (Kati Outinen) has been raised as an orphan by the farmer Juha (Sakari Kuosmanen), eventually becoming his wife. They are happy, working on the farm together, selling their produce at the market, living a life of contentment. One day however a stranger called Shemeikka (André Wilms) arrives on the farm. His car has broken down, and since Juha is unable to repair it until he can get new parts the next day, the stranger is invited to stay the night. Shemeikka cannot understand why such a beautiful young woman remains living in poverty with a lame farmer who is too old for her, and offers her the promise of a better life in the city. The man leaves, but he has awakened feeling in Marja that she hadn’t considered before and Juha starts to see a side of his wife that he doesn’t like. Eventually the visitor returns with the intention of taking Marja away to live with him in the city.
It’s difficult to know just what to make of modern films that strive to recreate the appearance, techniques and dramatic treatment of classic silent film. It’s certainly not done with commercial considerations in mind, so one would think that there are other artistic reasons involved than merely experimenting with the form. If any modern director is capable of tapping into the unique qualities of silent cinema (other than Guy Maddin, although his work is more stylistic than purist in evoking silent movies), it’s Aki Kaurismäki, and if there are any actors capable of expressing so much through so few words, it’s the cast that regularly appear in his films. Juha consequently is a marvellous recreation of that world, one whose melodramatic content (think Diary Of A Lost Girl, Sunrise, L’Atalante) is perfectly aligned with the directors own concerns and themes – ordinary people, innocence corrupted, and dreams of a better world in the big metropolis which doesn’t live up to those lofty ideals and ambitions.
At the same time however, Kaurismäki gains nothing from the technique that he doesn’t already display in his regular films. If anything, the usual impact is somewhat lessened. The terseness of the character’s normally clipped dialogue is not as demonstrative when it is compelled to be silent and the rather kitsch faux silent movie score is far from as expressive as the director’s usual more edgy tangos and rock ‘n’ roll selections. In all other respects however Juha is still wonderful viewing - in the pacing, content, performance and the overall impact of Kaurismäki’s unique way of blending comedy and tragedy to say something real and moving about our lives and behaviour.
The Aki Kaurismäki Collection Volume 2 is released in the UK by Artificial Eye. It contains three films, each presented on a single-layer DVD-5 disc - Take Care Of Your Scarf, Tatyana (1994), Drifting Clouds (1996) and Juha (1999). The DVDs are in PAL format and encoded for Region 2.
The image quality of the three releases on Volume 2 is roughly similar to those on Volume 1, which means they are all fairly good, but certainly not exceptional. The transfers would seem to be derived from theatrical prints, meaning a stronger contrast, some reel-change marks and occasional white dust marks. As two of the films included here are black-and-white, there are however not the same issues with colour tones as the first set. The greyscale tones on the black-and-white films are reasonably good, if fractionally high on contrast. All the images have excellent clarity – slightly on the soft side, but detail is good. The transfers are all anamorphic at the correct aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and are quite stable with only the most minor of brightness flickering occasionally evident. Take Care Of Your Scarf, Tatyana and Drifting Clouds seem to be progressively encoded, but Juha appears interlaced, the image blurring quite noticeably on movements and camera pans.
There is likewise little that is flash about the soundtracks of the films. Each has a Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo soundtrack which is more than adequate, allowing dialogue and sounds to come across clearly, with minimal problems other than a few pops here and there. Barring one or two sound-effects, Juha only has a music score – perfectly clear and well distributed, it alone benefits from an optional Dolby Digital 5.1 mix.
Optional English subtitles are included for all the films in a clear white font. Unlike the previous set, only Take Care Of Your Scarf, Tatyana has translations of the lyrics of all the songs sung or played in the background. The songs play a vital part in Kaurismäki’s films and their absence in particular on Drifting Clouds is a great loss. Similarly, signs and notices are not translated in the two latter films.
There are again no extra features on the discs at all. Scene Selection is available, but even that is restricted to basic text.
The Aki Kaurismäki Collection Volume 2 might not be as clearly thematically linked as the first set, but consequently there is a greater variety of tone and diversity of techniques employed in each of the three films. If it’s not among the director’s best works, Juha is of interest as an experiment in silent movie making that pays tribute to and illuminates some of the director’s key influences. The other two films however - Take Care Of Your Scarf, Tatyana and Drifting Clouds - are masterpieces, little gems of sheer perfection, showing a consistency in theme and tone that allows so much more to be drawn out of the human situations that their dry comedy and drab miserabilism might suggest.