“Are you always so confident?”
“No. This is the first time.”
Aki Kaurismaki understands better than maybe any other filmmaker that the world is a cruel place.
Ariel opens with a man named Tatsi quitting his job as a coal miner. His father hands Tatsi the keys to a convertible and kills himself in the bathroom of a restaurant. The convertible top doesn’t seem to work, but Tatsi drives anyway. He is knocked out and robbed by two men. He loses everything, but he meets a metermaid, they sleep together and agree to get married before they even know each other’s names.
Just as love would seem to save this man’s life, however, he is thrown in jail. And so on goes the most laid-back neo-noir I’ve ever seen.
Kaurismaki films his actors not as if they are people, but as if they are simply canvases for truth. They rarely emote, and among the times they do, smiling is a gift. These are people of quiet action, and Kaurismaki follows Jean Pierre-Melville in his knowledge that a small movement can tell more than hours of dialogue. This is deadpan to the extreme, but it is a deadpan that still inspires both laughter and true emotion.
The best scene in Ariel occurs when Tatsi first arrives in his prison cell. In the cell sits a man named Makkonen who sits at a table. Tatsi sits on the bed. Neither man speaks. Makkonen tosses Tatsi a packet of cigarettes. Tatsi takes one and passes it back. Makkonen tosses him some matches. Tatsi lights his cigarette and tosses them back. They nod, still without speaking. They are friends.
This small gesture, as are most gestures in Kaurismaki’s films, is a simple pleasure, funny and kind and painful all at once. There is an empathy to the way the camera sits still and presents the bleak humour of any given scene. I think this is because the writer/director knows a perfect truth.
Aki Kaurismaki understands that life is simply an onslaught of misery, and that the only to survive is to shrug, smile at your shoes, and move on.
And if he can make me laugh while saying that, who am I to say that he’s not a genius?