Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Higher Depths: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray Release of Aki Kaurismaki's La Vie de Boheme

When the Finnish writer-director Aki Kaurismaki first appeared on the world film scene in the late 1980s, he risked being typecast as a sort of Nordic-European doppelgänger to Jim Jarmusch, who shared Kaurismaki’s dry wit, his fixation on slightly outdated lowlife-bohemian milieus, and devotion to visual and narrative spareness. Like Jarmusch, Kaurismaki has sometimes rushed into production with only one joke in mind – as in his rock-band road movie Leningrad Cowboys Go America, which boasted a cameo by Jarmusch himself – and one audience member in mind, himself. La Vie de Boheme, which has just been released on DVD and Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection, was Kaurismaki’s most full-bodied and accessibly funny picture to date when it was first released in 1992. (He’s since topped himself, with The Man Without A Past, his 2002 comedy about an amnesiac who reinvents himself as a promotor of “rhythm music,” i.e., jumpy, stripped-down rock and roll.) In some ways, this, too, is a one-joke movie, but the director loves the joke, and the people who embody it, so much that it takes on the quality of a world view.

Sort-of inspired by the Henri Murger – sort-of literary adaptations having once been a specialty of Kaurismaki’s – La Vie de Boheme starts with Marcel (Andre’ Wilms, who reprised the role in Kaurismaki’s most recent feature, 2011’s Le Havre), an unlucky writer living in Paris. When Marcel complains to a bartender that no one will publish his 21-act play – a slab of paper the size of a cinder block, and the bartender offers to read it, Marcel asks, “You can read!?” But he instantly shifts gears and grandly proclaims, “Give me the people’s opinion and put the publishers to shame!” The strongest taste the audience ever gets of Marcel’s writing comes when we hear the flowery letter he’s left behind for the landlord who’s posted an eviction notice to his door: “I had hoped to celebrate this day by paying the rent,” it says, adding, “Delusion!” The landlord promptly rents the place out to Schaunard (Kari Vaananen), an avant-garde composer; there’s a rich comic moment when the landlord, beaming with satisfaction at having gotten rid of this florid, insolvent dreamer, suddenly takes a good look at his new tenant and realizes that, for all intents and purposes, it’s the same guy.

Marcel and Schaunard become friends and confederates when Marcel staggers up to his old apartment in the dead of night, to visit his old possessions. he’s brought along Rodolfo (Matti Pellonpaa), a painter he met in a bar. When a patron (Jean-Pierre Leaud) turns up and announcing that he’s looking for “Rodolpho the painter,” you feel that Rodolpho has finally achieved his life goal, in hearing himself referred to by that majestic title; actually finishing a great painting, let alone getting paid for it, is gravy. That could be true of all of them. The heroes of La Vie de Boheme are fully, romantically committed to the idea that they’re unappreciated creative geniuses at war with bourgeoisie life, and the central joke is that they don’t look the part.

They’re weary-looking middle-aged guys; seeing them in sitting in a cafe hunched over their drinks is an image that conjures up thoughts of interventions more than youthful abandon.  (When Marcel and Rodolpho burst in on Schaunard and the new tenant and the recent evictee try to blearily identify themselves, Rodolpho opens a bottle and says, “What say we irrigate this explanation?”) The triumph of the picture is that their advanced age and advanced state of burnt-out dissipation comes across as weirdly heroic rather than pathetic. These guys are not about to give up. Some of their stunts resemble the more anarchic Marx Brothers routines, and those stunts would seem irritatingly callow if attempted by younger, prettier actors. (Schaunard, jumping out of a taxi and hurling abuse at the fleeing driver: “Swine! He wanted money for a few kilometers!”)

The movie recognizes that its heroes are arrogant and self-deluded, but it has no desire to take them down a peg or two; they’re keeping something alive, something that’s bigger than their own unattainable dreams of artistic greatness. At the very least, they maintain their assertion that they are the dashing heroes of their own imaginations, against all odds. Having met Mimi (Evelyne Didi), a woman alone in the city who has nowhere to spend the night. the diminutive, wilted-looking Rodolpho instantly falls in love, takes her back to his place, and then goes to sleep in the park, explaining, “I am hot-blooded, and you are very beautiful.” (He ends up sleeping in a cemetery with his dog, Baudellaire, and picks some flowers off a grave to take back to her.) Like Robert Altman’s private-eye movie The Long Goodbye, La Vie de Boheme mocks the clichĂ©s that have attached themselves  to the romantic-starving-artist myth while actually revitalizing the feelings and principles at the myth’s core. It’s a great joke that exposes a “serious” picture like Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! for the bad joke that it is.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club.

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