Aki Kaurismaki’s latest film is yet another droll, dyer-than-dry account focusing on a down-and-out man on the fringes of society. His subject this time is Koistinen, a lonely sad sack of a man with a seemingly uncanny ability that makes almost everyone instantly dislike him as soon as they see him. He works as a night watchman at a large shopping center, but despite working there for three years, his supervisors insist on getting his name wrong — ostensibly to put him in his place. The co-workers aren’t much better, constantly teasing Koistinen about his skill with the ladies, or severe lack thereof. The only person who seems to harbor anything resembling warm feelings for Koistinen is Aila, a woman who runs the nearby food trailer.
That all changes, however, when a striking blonde woman named Mirja appears out of the blue and sits down next to Koistinen at a restaurant. Althought put off initally by the first person to actually express interest in him, Koistinen soon warms up to Mirja, and the two of them become a couple. Unfortunately, Mirja is your typical femme fatale (one of Lights in the Dusk’s many nods to classic noir cinema), and soon, Koistinen finds himself framed for a large jewelry heist that took place while he was on duty.
As with The Man Without a Past, Kaurismaki’s style is incredibly severe and spartan, but perhaps even more so here. His characters show almost no emotion outwardly, and much of the dialog is stiff and stilted. Which, in most cases, only adds to the dry-yet-absurd streak of humor that runs throughout the film. There are few laugh-out-loud moments, and those few are more awkward than anything else. It’s difficult to call the film cold or uninviting. Despite the actors’ consistent stoic-ness, there is a human warmth that envelopes the film in a glow, not unlike the way the gorgeous Finnish sunsets that Kaurismaki captures envelope the cold, industrial city Koistinen calls home.
For starters, Koistinen may be something of a sad sack, but like Chaplin’s Tramp, he never gives up. At the movie’s beginning, he’s slowly working on elaborate plan to start his own security company. And even when he’s arrested and charged with the theft, he remains indefatigable almost to the very end, picking himself up and dusting himself off after almost every setback, even though it seems like all of Fate’s forces are pitched against him.
And even though the acting is certainly not the most demonstrable out there, it’s all in the eyes. Kaurismaki frequently cuts of close-ups of Koistinen’s weathered blue eyes, and it’s possible to read equal amounts of resignation and resolution in his gaze. Most of Lights in the Dusk’s emotional warmth comes from Aila, who steadfastly sticks by Koistinen’s side throughout every ordeal even as he, in a small bit of irony, seems oblivious to her. In one of the movie’s most finest scenes, Koistinen tells Aila about his new girlfriend. After he leaves, Aila turns to the camera and her rigid expression shows signs of breaking — her lips trembling, her eyes rimming with tears. It’s still incredibly restrained and subdued, but that’s what makes it so affecting.
I suppose the same could be said of the film as a whole. Kaurismaki’s style certainly isn’t for everyone. Lights in the Dusk’s severity can be demanding at times, but Kaurismaki’s filmic worlds are as iconic and singular as any director working today: severe and stark, and yet riddled with streaks of tragically absurd humor and sympathetic situations that always prove enjoyable. For all of their rigidity and aloofness, Kaurismaki’s characters are intensely likable, especially hapless Koistinen, and the rigidity of the films make their plights all the more intense and epic. The movie’s final scene might not seem like much, or perhaps too slight, but in Kaurismaki’s stark films, even the simple gesture of holding hands speaks volumes.
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