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The luck of the Finnish

I'm always surprised at the uncertainty with which some commentators approach the films of Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki. This has to be partly down to cultural differences in our humour, particularly the mode of its delivery. The antithesis of the brash approach that has dominated American film comedy in recent years, Kaurismäki's films offer a working definition of the term deadpan. More than one review of his latest, Lights in the Dusk [Laitakaupungin valot], has expressed uncertainty about where the dividing line lies between the film's dramatic and comedic elements, since both are pitched at the same level of surface gloom.

It's not the first time I've encoutered such confusion regarding the director's work – in the 13 years of the existence of the film society I co-run, his wonderful 1996 Drifting Clouds [Kauas pilvet karkaavat] attracted our smallest ever audience, the prospect of a cold winter's evening spent in the company of a group of cheerless Finns proving a too daunting prospect for an audience that regularly complains that we don't show enough comedies. I've never had such problems with Kaurismäki's work, perhaps because I appear to share both his sense of humour and dour world view. But the cultural element should never be underestimated. I have two Finnish friends of persistently cheerful and outgoing disposition who adore Kaurismäki's films and go into fits of giggles whenever they recall scenes from them. I'm sure Kaurismäki himself would be amused to know that they are both dentists.

Lights in the Dusk is claimed by commentators and by Kaurismäki himself to be the third film in a trilogy that began with Drifting Clouds and was followed in 2002 by The Man Without a Past [Mies vailla menneisyyttä]. Depending on whom you read, this is either his Helsinki Trilogy or his Loser Trilogy, although that last one is a little non-specific given the rotten luck suffered by so many of the director's protagonists. Here the central unfortunate is Koistinen, a shy security guard whose inability to integrate and lack of success with the ladies has made him the butt of his workmates' contemptuous humour. He has ambitions to set up his own company but has no real business acumen and appears completely oblivious to the affections of Aila, who runs the frankfurter stand he regularly visits. Then one day he is approached by attractive blonde Mirja and the two start dating. But Mirja is not what she seems and Koistinen is clearly being set up for some kind of fall.

Everything about Lights in the Dusk is unmistakably Kaurismäki, from Koistinen's almost unbroken run of ill fortune and pared-down dialogue to the director's ability to find humour in the seemingly morose. Part of this stems from his wittily economical filmmaking – in common with Japanese maestro Kitano Takeshi, he can create a laugh-out-loud gag from two static shots and a perfectly timed edit, as evidenced in Anja's first visit to Koistinen's flat, where the director finds humour in something as simple as two people looking at a plate of bagels. This comedy minimalism extends to the dialogue – asked sourly by Aila how his cinema date with Mirja went, he replies unemotionally, "Good. Plenty of action."

Kaurismäki is not having fun at Koistinen's expense and is clearly in sympathy with his loneliness and misfortune, hence our own connection with the character and his fate in spite of his stony demeanour and emotional blind spots. There's a strong sense that his pain is at least partly self-inflicted, an outsider for whom conflict and disappointment are somehow inevitable and who glumly accepts his fate without protest or complaint. This results in the bypassing of expected narrative arcs, as when he sees evidence being planted to falsely implicate him in a crime and chooses to patiently wait for his arrest rather than disposing of it. It's no real surprise to him or to us that he takes a beating for complaining about the mistreatment of a dog, a situation he walks into with eyes wide open after the youth he questions on the animal's ownership directs him to three guys in a bar, adding the warning, "They're quite big."

There's no doubt that were it not for the oddball humour, Lights in the Dusk would be a bleak experience. Koistinen takes all the punishment Kaurismäki throws at him and is repeatedly denied the traditional narrative satisfactions of self-realisation and triumph over adversity. The ending is neither conclusive nor expected – I don't mean that it comes as a big surprise, I just wasn't ready for the film to end where it did. But this is the only uncertainty in a work that gripped me from its opening scene and perfectly balances its drama and black-painted comedy, the deliciously quirky detail never obscuring the poignancy of the story it enriches. Wonderfully shot by Timo Salminen and featuring a cast of fascinating faces (including what must be the world's tallest café worker), Lights in the Dusk will inevitably catch some flak for being typical of its distinctive director rather a step in a new direction, but that doesn't wash with me. There's no-one else out there making films like Aki Kaurismäki (although Juan Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stoll's delightfully droll Whisky comes joyously close), and I, for one, am damned happy – and I choose that adjective deliberately – that he's still doing it his way.

sound and vision

Framed 1.85:1 and anamorphically enhanced, this is a lovely transfer that handsomely showcases Timo Salminen's cinematography and Markku Pätilä's production design. The night-time footage has a particular vibrancy, the colours rich and the black levels bang on.

You can choose between 2.0 and 5.1 soundtracks, but there's not a lot of difference, although the stereo track is the louder of the two. Little use is made of the surrounds on the 5.1, but the clarity and dynamic range on both tracks is very good.

extra features

Interview with Aki Kaurismäki (17:37)
If you've had trouble separating the serious from the comic in Kaurismäki's films then just wait until you meet the man himself. With a mix of gruff world-weariness and droll humour, the director talks about the film, the actors, his casting of dogs ("I work with them because they are cheap and they are around"), the Cannes Film Festival, the Portuguese influence on Finland and the decline of Hollywood, which he dates to 1962. He also claims that he will not employ anyone who asks to work with him because "If you want to work with me you must be desperate." Conducted in English, the interview is funny and informative, but perhaps a little mischievous in its approach to truth.

Aki Kaurismäki Filmography
Is what it says, with no biographical embellishment.

Interview with Maria Järvenhelmi (23:55)
Also conducted in English, this is a lively and enjoyable chat with the film's lead actress, who covers a lot of interesting ground, including her theatrical training, her role in the film and working with Kaurismäki (no rehearsals, little improvisation allowed). She also suggests that Finnish people don't go to see Kaurismäki's films in great numbers because they get a little too close to the truth.

Stills Gallery (2:12)
A rolling gallery of film stills set to one of the vintage recordings that feature on the soundtrack.

Trailer (1:50)
Captures a little of the film's drama, but not its comedy.


Almost no-one can do melancholy and funny in such effectively side-by-side fashion as Kaurismäki, and Lights in the Dusk represents another fine chapter in his ongoing study of the humour and pathos of individual misfortune. Quirky and funny but also poignant and sad, the film is a typical Kaurismäki delight, and is very well presented on Artificial Eye's DVD. It also represents a good intro to the work of a director whose back catalogue has remained frustratingly unavailable in the UK, particularly annoying given that many of them are available on Finnish DVD with fine transfers and optional English subtitles (though just try finding a non-Finnish on-line store that stocks them). The good news is that Artificial Eye are planning to release at least two volumes of earlier Kaurismäki films in the very near future. I await with deadpan breath.

Lights in the Dusk
]Laitakaupungin valot\

Finland / Germany / France 2006
74 mins
Aki Kaurismäki
Janne Hyytiäinen
Maria Järvenhelmi
Maria Heiskanen
Ilkka Koivula

DVD details
region 2
1.85:1 anamorphic
Dolby 2.0 stereo
Dolby 5.1 surround
Finnish / Russian
subtitles .
Interview with Aki Kaurismäki
Interview with Maria Järvenhelmi
Aki Kaurismäki filmography

Artificial Eye
release date
27 August 2007
review posted
28 August 2007

related reviews
The Aki Kaurismäki Collection, Vol. 1
The Aki Kaurismäki Collection, Vol. 2
The Aki Kaurismäki Collection, Vol. 3
Aki Kaurismäki: The Leningrad Cowboys Collection

See all of Slarek's reviews