Aki Kaurismaki is one of Finland's most highly regard filmmakers. In 1989 Kaurismaki's Leningrad Cowboys Go America helped solidify his place in the international film scene, and ever since then the prolific filmmaker's work has played at festivals and arthouses throughout the United States. The 1996 film Drifting Clouds was the first installment in what was first known as the "loser series." Drifting Clouds was followed by 2002's The Man Without a Past, one of Kaurismaki's finest achievements as a filmmaker. Both films, though unrelated by story or character, are set in Helsinki, and revolve around a sad-sack cast of characters who have been dealt losing hands by life. With his most recent film, Lights in the Dusk, Kaurismaki's "loser series" has become the "loser trilogy" as the director once again explores the bone-dry comedic landscape of Helsinki.
Kaurismaki's latest loser is Koistinen (Janne Hyytiainen), a security guard who lives a sad and lonely existence. After three years on the job, his co-workers still don't know his name, and pay him no regard whatsoever. When he tries to make conversation, he is rebuffed by everyone. But when he meets Mirja (Maria Jarvenhelmi), Koistinen thinks he has finally found someone to love who will love him back. What he doesn't know is that Mirja works for a criminal, who is using her to get access to Koistinen's keys and alarm codes so he can rob a jewelry store in the mall that he patrols at night. When he refuses to tell the police what he knows, Koistinen goes to prison for a crime did not commit. Meanwhile, lunchwagon operator Aila (Maria Heiskane) carries a torch for Koistinen, but he is too blind to see it, making him as dismissive of her as the rest of the world is of him. When he is finally released from prison, our hero tries to rebuild his pathetic life, but the past soon comes back to haunt him.
Lights in the Dusk is essentially a noir film, told with the same unique comedic style that defines the work of Kaurismaki. And indeed, Kaurismaki's style of comedy is unique--as is his filmmaking in general. Known for the cold way he strips emotion from his stories, the characters in Kaurismaki's loser films can seem like sleepwalking automatons. This is by design, but it can be off-putting and unsettling, and if you're not paying attention, you may not even notice the films are comedies, as the director never telegraphs the humor. In fact, the first time I saw The Man Without a Past, I didn't even realize it was a comedy until about twenty-minutes in.
The Man Without a Past is the strongest of the films in the loser series, and while Lights in the Dusk is a good film, it is not as strong or compelling. The film's key problem lies with its loser-hero, Koistinen, who never becomes someone the audience can care about. Maybe Kaurismaki doesn't want audiences to feel anything for his protagonist, which would explain why he goes so far out of his way to downplay the emotional depth of his characters. But if that is the case, then he failed in The Man Without a Past, because we do care what happens to the amnesiac M (Markku Peltola), and he also failed in Lights in the Dusk because we ultimately don't care what happens to Koistinen. The revelation of M's true nature as a loser does not come until much later in The Man Without a Past, and by that point we have come to know him as someone else, and see the possibility of redemption. By contrast, Koistinen is a loser from the outset, and he only becomes worse; first, as he allows himself to take the fall for Mirja, and then again when he fails to see the compassion and caring Aila has to offer. Koistinen is very much a traditional noir protagonist, but by using a palate of muted tones to render the emotional content of his film, Kaurismaki paints the character in such a way that he never becomes all that likeable.
Despite my problems with the character development in Lights in the Dusk, I still appreciate the film. Kaurismaki, who is a cinematic soul brother of Jim Jarmusch, remains one an interesting an unique visual storyteller. But be warned, his films are not for everyone--they move incredibly slow and methodically, have long bouts of silence, and the emotional detachment really rubs some people the wrong way. Still, Lights in the Dusk has some wonderful moments, and for those willing to try something a bit offbeat cinematically, it is worth watching.