Aki Kaurismäki is one of the great treasures of contemporary arthouse cinema, but he remains an under-the-radar figure outside the film festival circuit. The Finnish writer-director makes dry, austere stories told with a chilly wit and bare-bones visuals. Emerging shortly prior to Jim Jarmusch and Hal Hartley, Kaurismäki’s works have similar tones and textures to those American art-cinema darlings, employing similar distancing effects and deadpan dialogue.
Most of his movies would qualify as either tragicomedies about the Finnish lower class or noirish genre subversions, and while his latest film Lights in the Dusk showcases both of these tendencies, it doesn’t resonate emotionally. Unlike the cleverly low-key humor of his previous Western successes Leningrad Cowboys Go America and The Man Without a Past, Lights in the Dusk’s apparent “comedy” is either so translucently hidden or so lost in translation that it’s hard to read the story as anything but a mirthless, virtually hopeless tragedy. Whatever humor that exists is surely as black as its hero’s prospective coffin.
The story is the standard femme fatale betrayal of an easily seduced patsy: Lonely security guard Koistinen (Janne Hyytiäinen) is approached in a restaurant by Mirja, a remarkably forward woman (Maria Järvenhelmi). After an instantaneous discussion of a potential marriage – the only funny moment in the film – they agree to a first date. We find out soon after that Mirja has a hidden agenda, working undercover for a Russian criminal to steal the combination for the jewelry store Koistinen guards. She does her job and the loot is stolen under a drugged Koistinen’s nose, but he’s still too smitten to squeal, and he ends up taking the rap, losing his job and serving time in jail.
Like most of Kaurismäki’s muted protagonists, Koistinen accepts his fate without protest. He’s designed to end up homeless and alone, albeit with the brief flicker of light in the dusk from the sweet roadside restaurateur from whom he gets free frankfurters and lemonade. The minimalistic cinematography, music and dialogue – Koistinen is one of Kaurismäki’s most laconic everymen – are all of a piece with the director’s signature style. His (non)handling of violence as an off-screen trifle or a theatrical dance recalls Robert Bresson’s anti-dramatic philosophy, a refreshing antidote to Hollywood excesses. But when the comedy goes, so goes Kaurismäki’s well-honed irony, leaving his most definable characteristic sorely absent.