LIGHTS IN THE DUSK (Laitakaupungin Valot) B+
Finland Germany France (78 mi) 2006 d: Aki Kaurismäki
You couldn't get out. All the doors were locked. —Koistinen (Janne Hyytiäinen), describing what it was like in prison
A perfect example of Kaurismäki’s minimalist miserablism, which is so wretchedly miserable, especially the way this director loves to pile it on, perhaps a template for the Coens in A SERIOUS MAN (2009), that it ends up being absurdly rich in comedy. Helsinki never looked so bleak and depressingly gloomy as this, the final chapter of his Helsinki Trilogy where love and hope eternal blooms among the homeless in THE MAN WITHOUT A PAST (1992), followed by a down-on-their-luck couple in DRIFTING CLOUDS (1996), taking a look at life on unemployment, making the best of a depressing situation, living “the Finnish reality,” leaving this final installment, perhaps the most painterly of the series, to be Kaurismäki’s sour comment on the brutally harsh system the Soviets left behind, where each man exists in a no man’s land of solitude and eternal gloom. Never have you seen a grayer city set in an industrial wasteland where the future looks so grim, where Kaurismäki accentuates the featureless concrete high rise structures of a former socialist state, remnants of an Eastern European mindset, adding stoic faces, rigid authoritarian rules, and rampant conformity, where anyone who’s different is looked upon the same as a foreigner, with utter contempt. Inside one of those nameless and faceless buildings lives Koistinen (Janne Hyytiäinen), a decent, good looking guy who goes about his business as a shopping mall security guard, carrying keys and entering security codes for each of the retail shops that he checks, returning the keys each night when he checks out. For whatever reason, and Kaurismäki never explains, the other guards all hang out together and go out drinking afterwards, but they shun and despise Koistinen, who by the way he speaks may have little education. There may be little hints, like a slightly different foreign accent that would not be perceived by an international audience relying on subtitles, but more likely Kaurismäki simply wrote it this way. In every group, there’s always one bad apple, but here the apple is decent, it’s the group that’s rotten.
Drenched in an atmosphere of delicious evil and uninterrupted cigarette smoking, Ilkka Koivula plays the most despicable character in the film, a Russian, or perhaps even worse, a Finn acting like a Russian, which in itself is a hilarious caricature because Kaurismäki relishes every touch of Russian malice, where here there’s plenty to go around, as he surrounds himself with other Russian gangsters, all wearing black shirts under their dark suits and ties, riding in black stretch limos, smoking relentlessly. These guys are completely amoral, yet with all the connections they have, they pull the strings. For whatever reason, probably because he’s friendless, isolated and alone, they target Koistinen as a chump, an easy set up, so they send him a gorgeous girl, Mirja (Maria Järvenhelmi), a shapely blond ice goddess who emotes nothing, asking at a café if he wants company because he’s all alone. Koistinen figures out in split seconds that God has answered his prayers and asks “And now what? We're getting married?” He takes her to a rock ‘n’ roll club, where in typical Kaurismäki fashion the first song is played in its entirety by a band called Melrose, where Koistinen just aimlessly stands in one spot and looks around, but Mirja whispers in his ear “It's easy to see you've got rock ‘n’ roll in your blood,” a viciously funny remark, and a comment on how he sees himself as opposed to who he really is. Little does he know what’s in store for him, as after walking the rounds with him and memorizing the security code, they drug him, take his keys and rob a high priced jewelry store on his route, the first of a series of Job-like setbacks that challenges him to the very core, where he is sent to jail and humiliated from one instance to the next, where even the building where he lived gets demolished and where the girl expresses reservations about him talking to the police. But the Russian insists not to worry, “Koistinen will never betray you. He's as loyal as a dog, the sentimental fool. It's my genius to understand that.”
And there you have it, Kaurismäki’s comment on the Finnish state of mind, a society of lap dogs just waiting for hand outs that never come, believing their troubles are just “temporary.” Through Koistinen's Christ-like suffering, continually turning the other cheek, the audience is continually dismayed that it’s not playing out like “in the movies,” like the machine guns and surging violins heard when Koistinen actually goes to the movies, where some unanticipated heroic answer arrives in the form of a cavalry or a bigger villain than the Russian who will cut him down to size. But it’s not that kind of movie. Instead it’s mercilessly accurate in terms of how helpless and lonely each individual stands against the heartless bureaucracy and the impervious scorn of the State. Kaurismäki’s picture of Helsinki is to expect to get kicked around a lot, where rampant homelessness and unemployment complete the picture of the urban Trilogy. In all three films there’s a depiction of romance, from an established marriage, to a most unorthodox attraction, to a completely bogus affair, where Koistinen shuns his real girl friend, Aila (Maria Heiskanen), a simple yet loyal woman who steadfastly remains at his side, exactly like his coworkers treat him, barely noticing that she’s even there. With ravishing shots of construction cranes strewn about the city and a fog-like emptiness surrounding the gloom of the harbor, cinematographer Timo Salminen shows Helsinki to be a work in progress, where there are also luminous views of high rise modernization and a thriving seaport. Set to an operatic soundtrack featuring plenty of Jussi Björling, a “Swedish” tenor, told in his trademark deadpan style with fadeouts to black, Kaurismäki wittily shows how easily one can fall from grace and end up in the gutter, with no protection from the fall and where all hope feels lost, where easily the sequence of the movie is a Buñuel-like scathingly dark commentary with gallows humor where just like the end of Simon of the Desert (Simón del Desierto) (1965), the Russians sell their souls to the devil and discover their love of rotgut rock ‘n’ roll, where they sit around drinking and playing cards all day while Mirja sweeps up after them, waiting on them hand and foot.