“When all the hope is gone, there is no reason for pessimism.” (Aki Kaurismäki)
Two Finns are in a bar. After hours of silence, one man raises his glass to the other and says, “Cheers.” The other man snaps back, “I didn’t come here for conversation.”
Aki Kaurismäki is one of my favourite directors. For 30-odd years, he has been making the bleakest comedies – films that reflect his own soul, and that of his mother country, perfectly. They are dark and joyless, starring men who look like walruses and women who look like rats. His characters work away at dull jobs in factories or down coal mines or washing dishes, and rarely talk to each other. (In 1990’s The Mach Factory Girl, there are 13 minutes before the first line of dialogue, and the whole film is only 68 minutes long.) They usually drink too much and the more decisive ones kill themselves: in Ariel, a father and son sit in a bar; then the father gets up, goes to the loo and shoots himself. The best his protagonists can hope for is escape, usually by boat.
But, amazingly, these films are funny and romantic. In fact, the bleaker Kaurismäki the man has become, the more tender his films. The Man Without a Past, which won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2002, is typical of his latter-day ability to find hope in the hopeless: an unnamed man is mugged, left unconscious, loses his memory and is left to rebuild his life, befriended by dossers and drifters.