Lights In The Dusk Review

Watching Aki Kaurismäki’s latest film, you simply have to marvel at the economy of expression refined into the most minimal of techniques and gestures, and wonder just how much further he can take this style before it becomes pure abstraction or simply just grinds to a halt. Only 74 minutes long (on PAL DVD), Lights In The Dusk is slow, somewhat predictable and inevitably deadpan, but so refined is it into the purest distillation of all that is Kaurismäkian, that for all its simplicity and the shortness of its running time, there is a wealth of detail, humour and humanity contained within it.

Thematically fitting in as the third part of the Finnish director’s ‘Losers Trilogy’, our leading man here, Koistinen (Janne Hyytiäinen), indeed has loser written all over him practically from his first minute on the screen. A night-shift security guard, he doesn’t particularly fit in with his work colleagues who treat him with contempt and indifference despite him having worked there at the same job for three years. Shunned by his colleagues at the local bar, Koistinen doesn’t fit in either at an upmarket restaurant where beautiful women who wouldn’t look at him twice hang on the arms of large men in suits. Despite his lowest of the low status however, Koistinen has high ambitions, studying and intending to start up his own company. But a loser with high ambitions can be prone to foolish actions, particularly where there is a woman involved.

The typically dry and expressionless approach of Aki Kaurismäki seems perfectly in keeping with the hardboiled elements of what is almost a noir thriller – albeit rather an unusual one - complete with its own femme fatale. No sooner does Mirja (Maria Järvenhelmi) walk into a bar and show interest in our sullen hero, than Koistinen proposes to her, takes her out to the movies, for a meal and to a club to see a band. In that order. Having acquired a girlfriend, he matter-of-factly informs the lady who runs the hot-dog stall (Maria Heiskanen) that is his regular hang-out. The fact that she may harbour unexpressed feelings for Koistinen is evident in how she reacts - simply closing down her stop and switching off the light. But the inherent humour in these situations and the deep emotional undercurrent that it masks cannot be described adequately in print. Combining quirky characters, direct dialogue delivered blankly in a deadpan manner with minimal expression, a slow deliberate pace and an outstanding soundtrack that combines Puccini, tango and rock ‘n’ roll, Kaurismäki nevertheless still manages to touch on the essence of his characters and human nature, losing not a fraction of the emotional impact of their situations, circumstances and inner lives.

For all its simplicity and easy-going charm, it’s too easy however to label Lights In The Dusk merely as a quirky comedy. Kaurismäki’s work is the purest cinema in the vein of Antonioni, Wong Kar-wai, Bresson and Ozu (an avowed influence for the director). His work cuts out what is superfluous and false - in technique, in dialogue and in gesture - and goes directly to the heart of his characters. Here, as in the other two films of his ‘Losers Trilogy’, Drifting Clouds and The Man Without A Past, Kaurismäki sees the comic absurdity in the little man leading a lonely life and nurturing grand ambitions, struggling to remain honourable, decent and caring in a harsh, unforgiving society. A sentimental fool, but as loyal as a dog, Koistinen’s everyman takes what comes his way, the good and the bad, picks himself up again after his setbacks and just gets on with it. With Lights In The Dusk the dry and laconic Finnish director seems to have refined his work down to the essential without slipping into self-parody, his observation of the quirkiness of human nature and the inherent humour and tragedy of life only seeming to get ever keener.

Lights In The Dusk is released in the UK by Artificial Eye. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc, is in PAL format, and is encoded for Region 2.

Presented anamorphically at the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the picture quality is very impressive with a crystal clear image showing remarkable detail There is scarcely a mark on the print. Colours are strong but perhaps not completely accurate in tone, skin tones sometimes appearing a little cold, but this could just be a consequence of the lighting. There is some minor flickering of compression artefacts which can be quite noticeable shimmering in backgrounds – something that is happening quite often recently on otherwise perfect Artificial Eye releases – so I suspect it could be authored better. Overall however, the film looks wonderful.

The film comes with a choice of Dolby Digital 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio mixes. Either will suffice. The surround mix is outstanding when required to be – deep, strong and reverberating – but that’s not often. The mixing is low-key and up to the front. I don’t think I detected any activity on the rear speakers at all, even when you would expect the sound mix to open up. Nevertheless, the tone is strong and dynamic, Kaurismäki as ever achieving a remarkable “live” sound to the inevitable rock band performance.

English subtitles are provided for the film in a clear white font and are optional.

Interview with Aki Kaurismäki (17:35)
If you’ve never seen Kaurismäki interviewed before, he’s just like one of the characters in his movies – wry, laconic and self-deprecating. Straight-faced, he talks here about how he has total freedom to make his lousy films, and puts his rather direct and blank, inexpressive technique down to being too lazy to be bothered working on it. The interview covers the casting of the film, Cannes and the commercialisation of cinema in general, as well as background on his own interests and way of making films. This is much shorter than the usual 30-40 minute Artificial Eye interviews, but I suspect this is merely because all the long pauses have been edited out. Absolutely marvellous.

Aki Kaurismäki Filmography
The director’s features, documentaries and short films are all listed, many of them due for release by Artificial Eye in the near future.

Interview with Maria Järvenhelmi (23:55)
Originally a stage actress, Järvenhelmi talks about being cast in the film and gives some indication of Kaurismäki’s working methods. She also talks about the director’s relative lack of success in his own homeland and how accurately his films represent the Finnish people. Both interviews are conducted in English and are not subtitled.

Stills Gallery (2:12)
A slideshow presents some full-screen promotional stills for the film.

Trailer (1:35)
Almost a mini-masterpiece of everything Kaurismäki on its own, the trailer is presented anamorphically and with optional English subtitles.

Apologies for the relative brevity of this review, but it’s not for lack of things to say about the director’s work. Everything that needs to be said about Lights In The Dusk is there in the film however, and when it is expressed as plainly, concisely, beautifully, truthfully and humorously as it is here, it seems inappropriate to over-analyse or explain. I’ll have to work on finding something more to say about the Kaurismäki’s work though as Artificial Eye are preparing to put out thirteen of the director’s films over four boxsets in the next few months. Anyone new to Aki Kaurismäki however would find Lights In The Dusk a fine entry point into the director’s unique and wonderful world.

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