The Aki Kaurismäki Collection Volume 3 Review

The Aki Kaurismäki Collection Volume 3 contains four films, three of which are adaptations of literary classics that see the director take on Dostoevsky (Crime and Punishment), Shakespeare (Hamlet Goes Business) and Murger (La Vie de Bohème). The fourth, Calamari Union, although not strictly an adaptation, could at least be tenuously connected to Jacques Prévert. What is perhaps surprising about Kaurismäki’s adaptations – most of them made quite early in his career – is just how faithful they remain to their sources.

At least, up to a point. Reducing the plotline to its essential elements, stripping back exposition and dialogue to only what is absolutely necessary and putting it across in a typically direct manner, the essence of the original themes comes through, but applied to a particularly Kaurismäki-like sensibility - with characters in small menial jobs struggling to find meaning in their lives and believe in a pure romantic love as found in songs and the movies. In these four films then Kaurismäki finds the elements of absurdity, comedy and tragedy that characterise most of his own work.

Crime and Punishment (1983)
It’s interesting that both Woody Allen and Aki Kaurismäki should be so drawn to Fyodor Dostoevsky’s classic novel Crime and Punishment. Both directors are clearly fascinated by the underlying absurdity of the novel’s view of the human condition and find the only means of expressing it is either through comedy or tragedy. While Allen has tried both approaches in his loose adaptations of Dostoevsky’s novel in Crimes and Misdemeanors and, less successfully, in Match Point, Kaurismäki – in his first feature film – already shows a propensity for a more direct approach, while at the same time managing to imprint an essential Finnish character on the work.

Kaurismäki’s directness in depicting the nature of his Raskolnikov, called here Rahikainen, extends to the workplace – a slaughterhouse where the man coldly strips dead carcasses and bisects a bug that has found his way onto his chopping block. With a similar lack of emotion and no apparent motive, Rahikainen (Markku Toikka) walks into the apartment of a rich businessman and shoots him dead. His crime is witnessed by a girl from a catering firm, Eeva (Aino Seppo), but when the police question Rahikainen about the murder, she doesn’t give him away. As the police try to find evidence that points to his involvement, Rahikainen plays a cat and mouse game with the inspector (Esko Nikkari), flirting with being caught, but at the same time not wanting to be held to account for an action he doesn’t believe was wrong.

The motivation may have changed in Kaurismäki’s version of Crime and Punishment, but the complexity of the psychology of the killer remains essentially the same, since the substance of the story is ironically not about the crime nor the punishment, but a consideration of the individual’s place in society and notions of guilt. When he fails to accept the morality, laws and rules that society demands he must adhere to - not so much through a sense of moral superiority as much as through a different conditioning influenced by his own life experiences and perhaps his working environment (the factors are innumerable and their impact unquantifiable, which is where the fascination of the story lies) – he thus finds himself in an intolerable and very lonely position.

The situation is mirrored and complicated to some extent with Eeva, who also behaves according to her own sense of duty. When combined, such forces can pose a serious threat to the foundations that society is built upon - “If people were sent to prison for their thoughts or words, your prisons would be full in no time”, Rahikainen tells the police inspector. That Kaurismäki manages to convey the full import of the story in relatively few words and with minimal expression is remarkable, but then that is not at all uncharacteristic for this director.

Hamlet Goes Business (1987)
What other director would take on a modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s greatest play and have Hamlet actually chomping down on a big chunk of ham in his first scene? Who else would depict Hamlet as a scheming manipulator inheriting a multinational corporation that intends to go into the business of manufacturing rubber ducks? Who else could be so irreverent of the source material, yet remain relatively faithful the underlying themes and structure, while at the same time making a credible interpretation and updating of the material to fit his own outlook? Well, if he can do it with Dostoevsky, Kaurismäki can certainly do it with Shakespeare.

Hamlet (Pirkka-Pekka Petelius) is the son of a successful businessman, but when his father dies – a death brought about by his ambitious uncle Klaus (Esko Salminen), who is having an affair with Hamlet’s mother Gertrud (Elina Salo) – the young man seems to have no interest in the wealth and power he has inherited. He doesn’t really have a head for business and spends his time instead writing poetry to Ofelia (Kati Outinen) – the daughter of senior manager Polonious (Esko Nikkari) - and doodling with crayons at important boardroom meetings. But Hamlet is not blind to the business of murder or the scheming that is going on around him, and intends to oppose and expose their activities.

Kaurismäki’s Hamlet Goes Business might sound irreverent and comedic in comparison to other loose adaptations or updates of Shakespeare’s famous play, but the Finnish master of deadpan actually treats the film with a great deal of respect, demonstrating a keen awareness of the original’s characterisation and motivations, while at the same time reinterpreting it, shading it a couple of degrees darker than Shakespeare intended with some inventive death scenes (even Rosencranz and Gyldenstern, as two company stooges, meet their demises on screen).

Kaurismäki updates and makes these changes and updates to the play with remarkable precision and subtlety, not to mention a greater sense of credibility than Per Fly’s Inheritance (Arven), making them work without undermining the delicate balance of the play’s complex relationships in the manner of the Chinese swordplay version, The Banquet. Yet, the film does reflect the director’s own particular outlook and sensibility, making Hamlet Goes Business as much a pure Aki Kaurismäki film as it is a Shakespeare adaptation.

Calamari Union (1985)
Largely improvised and reportedly filmed entirely while the director was either drunk or suffering from a hangover, with all the characters named Frank because the director couldn’t be bothered giving them individual names - the prospect of Kaurismäki’s second feature film being any way coherent is slim. And indeed the haphazard nature of the making of the film does result in Calamari Union being the director’s most random film. Fortunately, coherence doesn’t seem to be all that important here.

Coming across like a version of Tarkovsky’s Stalker remade by Jim Jarmusch, a couple of dozen guys called Frank, all in sunglasses with bad 80s haircuts and serious smoking habits, call a meeting and decide that it is time to make the perilous crossing across Helsinki to the fabled Eira district, to experience the kind of life that has been denied them. It’s a journey fraught with danger and distraction – art galleries, movie houses, coffee shops, amusement arcades and women all hold them back from ever reaching their destination.

The journey they have to make is an absurd and bizarre one. They know there is something special out there that is missing from their lives, but are too unadventurous, frightened or dumb to work out what it is or how to get there, letting despair, disagreements and distractions prevent them from achieving their goal. Hmmm... it almost sounds like a metaphor for something...

One suspects that the filmmaker is in a similar position to his characters, his intention to complete the film threatened by his own lassitude and indifference. It’s a condition that has affected Kaurismäki throughout his career, but has often resulted in his films taking on a unique character – the director’s shortcuts only making them more inventive and funny. On this occasion the viewer – like Frank – might also feel like they are losing the will to live, but the situation is always rescued by another piece of music or random occurrence as one Frank comes across another in a shop, up a tree or under the streets.

La Vie de Bohème (1992)
Filmed in France with French dialogue – even from the Finnish members of the cast - La Vie de Bohème (The Bohemian Life) would seem to be aiming to be a reasonably faithful adaptation of Henry Murger’s novel, the original source of Puccini’s famous opera La Bohème. But for the character names and their social status as bohemian artists living hand-to-mouth however, Kaurismäki’s modern-day version bears almost no resemblance to either the novel or the opera in its situations or characterisation. Stripped back to its core elements though, its view of marginalised people struggling to live their lives in the manner they choose and find true love against the odds, is at the heart of the piece as it is in much of Kaurismäki’s work.

Kaurismäki regular Matti Pellonpää is the film’s Rodolfo, an illegal Albanian immigrant in Paris who is struggling to make ends meet as a painter. Between himself, his friend Marcel (André Wilms), a struggling writer and Schaunard (Kari Väänänen), an impoverished musician, they manage to get the occasional commission to support each other through the difficult periods. Rodolfo, a romantic who falls in love easily, has met Mimi (Evelyne Didi), a girl just arrived in the city from the provinces, who has found work in a Tobacconists. Fate, misfortune and poverty however conspire to keep them apart.

I love you, but life is difficult” Mimi tells Rodolfo with typical Kaurismäkian concision and matter-of-factness at one point in the film, and essentially that sums up the essence and commonality of La Vie de Bohème with its source material. In the modern day world, Mimi is not dying of consumption, Rodolfo is a painter rather than a poet (although curiously, in the one scene barring the finale that is in any way close to the original, the artist drags out some old poetry he has written to burn on the fire when he and Mimi can no longer afford to heat their room), but there are other factors like illegal immigration that place obstacles in their way.

I’m not convinced that this achieves anything great – neither illuminating the themes of the source material nor adding anything particularly new to the director’s oeuvre. Although the Finnish members of the cast acquit themselves well in French, it’s less clear why the director has chosen to shoot the film in France or how it relates to the essential Finnish character of his other works, and it ends up coming across feeling lifeless rather than droll. Murger’s original novel was based on the author’s own personal experiences with the Bohemian life of Paris in the mid-1800s and rather than recount those, it would appear that Kaurismäki perhaps examines how the themes that arise there relate to his own life experiences. In this respect at least La Vie de Bohème remains timeless and universal.

The Aki Kaurismäki Collection Volume 3 is released in the UK by Artificial Eye. It contains four films - Crime and Punishment (1983) is on a dual-layer disc with the Jonathan Ross documentary feature; Hamlet Goes Business (1987) and Calamari Union (1985) share a dual-layer disc and La Vie de Bohème (1992) is on its own on a single-layer third disc. The DVDs are in PAL format and encoded for Region 2.

The print quality of Crime and Punishment, the only colour film in the set, is a marked improvement from the transfers on the films in Artificial Eye’s previous two Kaurismäki sets. The image is clear and sharp, while colours are wonderfully accurate, although possibly a little reddish on skintones. There is a little bit of grain visible and some dirt marks early in the film, but this improves and the print is mostly clean. The film is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1, which may be the intended aspect ratio, or it may be opened-up to full-frame. The does seem to be a comfortable amount of headroom here.

Hamlet Goes Business, in black-and-white, looks just fine. There’s a little bit of grain, some softness and faint, barely noticeable tramline scratches on the print, but otherwise the greyscale tones are good. Presented anamorphically at a ratio of more or less 1.85:1, there’s really not much else wrong with this transfer.

Calamari Union isn’t quite as crisp and clear as the other black-and-white films in the set, but nevertheless still looks quite good. There are some minor flaws in terms of brightness, tone and marks on the print, along with some evident reel-change marks, but otherwise it’s certainly more than adequate and transferred anamorphically at the correct 1.66:1 aspect ratio.

La Vie de Bohème looks quite impressive, with wonderful tones and a nice crisp image. There are only one or two frames with some minor marks and artefacts and some grain may be evident, but in the main, the print is wonderful and the 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer is excellent.

The audio tracks on all the films is Dolby Digital 2.0 and it is generally fine, with clear audible dialogue and no real background noise or distortion. Hamlet Goes Business is particularly well-toned, the rock ‘n’ roll songs characteristically having a bit of a kick.

English subtitles are provided in a clear white font and are optional. Despite their being some omissions in the translations of songs on one or two of the films in previous sets, all Finnish songs are all fully subtitled here.

There were no extra features on previous sets, and there is only one on the three discs included in Volume 3, but it’s a good one - Jonathan Ross presents – For One Week Only: Aki Kaurismäki (32:23). From 1990, in a slightly edited down format removing references to the film 'I Hired A Contract Killer', Jonathan Ross struggles to crack the implacable façade of the enigmatic director who is presenting his latest film The Match Factory Girl at a Finnish film festival inside the Arctic Circle. Ross tries to get some indication of the intentions behind the earlier films, but – clearly the worse for wear after some heavy drinking - Kaurismäki is typically dismissive of them and self-effacing.

The Aki Kaurismäki Collection Volume 3 presents another interesting facet of the Finnish director’s work - his adaptations of classic literature – showing considerably more range and variety to Kaurismäki’s films than is generally acknowledged. His approach to the sources is certainly unique, characteristically reducing them to the minimum of dialogue and expression, but in doing so he manages in at least two of the films - Crime and Punishment and Hamlet Goes Business - to brilliantly find a perfect balance between the original themes and his own expression. The other two films - Calamari Union and La Vie de Bohème - are less successful and compelling, but do have their own moments of magic. Artificial Eye’s presentation of the films is again basic, but of reasonable quality and there is even a good extra feature included.

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