“The grafting on of the film’s film noir plot has a reductionist minimalism to it, as if Kaurismaki were sketching an archetype . . .”
Aki Kaurismaki offers Lights in the Dusk (2006) as the third installment of his loosely interconnected “Loser Trilogy” — darkly comic but humanist takes on the lives of a selection of downtrodden downbeats in a cold and unfriendly Helsinki. But unlike Drifting Clouds (1996) and in particular The Man Without a Past (2002), the response to Lights has been very muted, something of a critical shrug of the shoulders at business-as-usual in Kaurismaki-land. Part of the “problem” — if you accept that there is a problem in the first place, which I don’t — is that Lights is a much cooler, more overtly controlled film. Its central character, security guard Koistinen (Janne Hyytianen), seems to accept the blows that life deals him with resigned inevitability, something that marks the tone of the film as a whole; and Koistinen’s character is never as warmly depicted and never offers the narratives of dramatic growth and redemption that you get from Drifting Clouds’ middle-aged couple or the mousy Salvation Army worker and her amnesiac beau in The Man Without a Past.
Koistinen is the Lonely Urban Man incarnate, a mute hangdog look on his face, his eyes slowly flicking down and rising up again in a mournful expression of misery and resignation. His job of night security guard at a shopping mall is an existential statement in its own right, as he repeatedly trudges his fixed route along deserted corridors and past locked and empty shops. After three years in the job his supervisor still doesn’t remember his name and his fellow security guards, when they don’t treat him with contempt, simply ignore him. The only brief contact he has is with a young black girl, an abused dog, and Aila (Maria Heiskanen), the woman who runs the fast-food van that he frequents and who is clearly, silently, in love with him — but Koistinen is too closed-off and mired in his own sense of isolation to notice.
From early on there’s a clear sense of Koistinen’s resigned acceptance of the injustice of the world, of an inevitable chain of events where he will do what is morally right and the world will deal him one more unfair blow, which he will accept uncomplainingly. So, he goes into a pub to confront the owners of the dog that has been tied up outside for a week. Seeing the three hulking thugs in question, he already knows the outcome but he follows through on what he believes is his duty. Kaurismaki’s camera is fixed on the thugs’ table as they and Koistinen go outside to “talk” about it, and that shot, empty of people, holds until the thugs return with a smile on their face, Koistinen’s inevitable beating occurring in an off-screen space that we are never made party to.
That shot of the table is consistent with Kaurismaki’s shot aesthetic in Lights in the Dusk. There’s a measured tone to the repeated use of medium shots to isolate one character — most of all Koistinen — within the frame and to isolate him (or her) off from characters in the contiguous space. Again and again, Koistinen will stare in isolated, mute misery at the world around him. But he’s not alone. Other characters will be isolated in similarly structured shots, staring back with mute expressionlessness. You can interpret this as a sign of the world’s antagonism towards Koistinen (particularly the blackly comic shots of his work colleagues lined up across the shot, staring at him), but this is hardly the case for Mirja (Maria Jarvenhelmi), the film’s femme fatale character.
Mirja draws Koistinen into the film’s cursory film noir plot, a scheme concocted by Mirja’s “businessman” boyfriend (one joke that Kaurismaki plants at the end of the film is when the boyfriend tells his heavies not to bump Koistinen off because “we’re businessmen, not gangsters”) to get the mall security codes off Koisitinen and rob a jewelry shop. Essentially picking him up in a near-empty café, she gets herself invited out to the movies and a rock concert, but seems to have as miserable an experience of life as Koistinen. Just as with Koistinen, Kaurismaki repeatedly isolates Mirja in medium shots as she blankly returns the hostile gaze of the world around her. Not that there isn’t always an underlay of humour to all of this. One of the film’s most delightful shots is when the gangster boyfriend and his cronies are playing cards in dull anomie while Mirja, entirely apart from them, frantically vacuums the apartment in the background.
Underneath it all, and in spite of a popular tendency to read his films along hip-cool-quirky lines, Kaurismaki is an old-fashioned romantic, layering his films with a charming retro appeal. There’s a wider political-ideological connotation to this, a deliberate disassociation from the values of the globalised monetarist contemporary world in favour of those “loser” heroes of his who simply fail (where they don’t more overtly refuse) to adapt to the demands of that world. Kaurismaki loves his characters, those few — in the case of Lights in the Dusk, Koistinen and Aila — who maintain values of humanity, authenticity, love, and moral action. And the director places them in a social environment that seems out of kilter with the modern world: hence, the retro décor, the pop songs from years past, the tango music, and the old-fashioned rock’n’roll (hip-hop’s made no impact here).
The influence of Bresson on Kaurismaki has always been there — The Match Factory Girl (1990) could be read if you like as his version of L’Argent (1983) — but I’ve never been quite as conscious of it as when watching Lights. Kaurismaki strips down his images to the pristine essentials, and unfolds his story with a simplicity and an absolute concision; no surprise that it only lasts 78 minutes! The grafting on of the film’s film noir plot has a reductionist minimalism to it, as if Kaurismaki were sketching an archetype — the hero inveigled into crime by the treacherous woman; the heist; the frame-up — whose details we’re asked to fill in ourselves. The heist in Jean-Pierre Melville’s The Red Circle, 1970), for all its famed abstractive qualities, seems positively discursive in comparison to Lights in the Dusk‘s. In Kaurismaki’s hands these heist scenes assume a stately and static minimalism as the camera first frames for a few moments the plush material on which the jewels lie before hands move into the frame to execute the theft.
But Kaurismaki never gives in to the temptations of this noir plot, of satisfying the audience by making Koistinen more of an active hero than he can ever be. Koistinen accepts Mirja’s betrayal of him just as he accepts all the small defeats that everyday life holds out for him. Even when she plants some of the robbery proceeds in his dingy basement apartment as incriminating evidence, he accepts the situation, going to prison without betraying her in his turn. But his moment of revolt, of violent — but, inevitably, ineffective — action does come. On his release from prison — where he experiences his one moment of happiness, conversing outside with fellow prisoners as the seasons turn from winter to spring — Koistinen ends up in a grungy halfway house, rejects Aila’s friendship/love, and then in yet a further blow is fired from his dishwashing job through the malicious intervention of Mirja’s boyfriend.
Now Koistinen cracks. Finally understanding the ramifications of the plot he’s been victim of, he grabs a knife and seeks his revenge. How many viewers, in a burst of adrenalin, secretly or not so secretly hope here that Koistinen will achieve his cathartic revenge in an outburst of blood and violence? But Kaurismaki is having none of it. At this late stage he doesn’t propose to start indulging his characters and his audience in the easy vicarious satisfactions of a crime thriller plot. Koistinen is a loser who can’t fail to end up beaten to a near pulp by the businessman’s thugs. But right through the film Kaurismaki has been leading up to this one moment of moral victory, the one moment, too, when the Bressonian influences become most pronounced. After Koistinen declares “I’m not going to die,” a declaration that simply reinforces the persistence he has always shown of staying his course no matter what, Kaurismaki ends the film with a close-up of Kostinen and Aila’s hands meeting. It’s the point where Koistinen joins Pickpocket‘s Michel in recognising at last the woman who has always been there for him, it’s an emotional and visual epiphany, and it’s the grace note to which Lights in the Dusk has been simply, beautifully, and inexorably moving.