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Culture: Lights in the Dusk
Sunday, 15 July 2007 Written by Henry Midgley
(Click for larger image)
Lights in the Dusk is a deliberately mannered film- immitating at times the style of Robert Bresson particularly in the superb performance of its leading man Janne Hytiainen who seems to underreact more than he reacts and in its camera shots- like Bresson's camera the camera here lingers in the rooms that the characters have left- lingers on the frame that the story has departed from. We are meant to notice walls and floors, tables, chairs and mugs as much as the characters.

And in this sense the look of the film sits well with the balance between the vivid colours of each scene, the beautiful photography of Finland, and the bare acting of the characters. As in Bresson the camera moves mean something, but here Aki Kaurismaki is doing something rather deliberate the intense lonely actors are balanced against the vivid colours around them- the structure of the film, scene settings and clothing are much more vivid than the faces of the characters. In most films the setting is more ambiguous and the acting directs you to an answer- here its the opposite.

In my view that is a deliberate move and it needs to be understood in the context of a film which is a superb piece of art- for this is perhaps the first film I have seen which presents visually the idea of a psychological structuralism. If Bresson was the artist of Catholic certainty, then Kaurismaki is the artist of atheist certainty- Bresson's characters radiate the screen with inward light (take for example Joan in Proces de Jeanne d'Arc, then Kaurismaki is forcing you to see the way that the structure lights the outer rims of the darkness that is the human soul.

This third of Kaurismaki's loser films takes as its hero Koistenen a Finnish security guard. Koistenen is a lonely man- mocked openly by his workmates, turned down by women in bars, even at one point squashed by an outwardly open toilet door as he tries to take a drink, his act of heroism to help a dog turns into a bloody beating- Koistenen is respected and beleived by noone that he meets. He has visions of setting up his own security company- but from the first frame we know that its incredibly unlikely that he will ever do that. Koistenen though is surprised because a pretty girl at one point comes up to him, she chats to him and asks him to ask her out- and he does and she says yes.

And Koistenen is swept upwards on a tide of joy- he goes to a movie and to a disco with her, her impassive face seems to lie whereas she demonstrates enthusiasm at every point. One might think she is in love, she kisses him on the cheek, comes over for dinner and does all the rest. But what Koistenen doesn't know- but we do very quickly- the girl is merely a stooge, she is a femme fatale and she is working for a criminal gang who are designing a heist. Suffice it to say that the conclusion of the heist is that Koistenen ends up taking the blame, losing his job and going to prison. The whole film's story has a basis in futility- ultimately Koistenen isn't going to succeed in doing anything that he wants to do.

The structure is the cinematography- Kaurismaki's palette is that of a fifties film- the femme fatale Mirja- played excellently by Maria Jarvenhelmi- looks like a cross between a Bergman heroine, her face's sharp contours remind one of Bibi Anderson, but her look strikes one of the Hollywood heroines of the fifties. The look is deliberate- we need to be reminded of the fifties- and Kaurismaki wants us to think of the conventional fifties- or the fifties of convention- he wants us to think of film noir in the sense that defiance of that convention was always rewarded by death. Structure is sovereign is the clue we are getting- the music as well which alternates from soft rock to wonderful classical music (the soundtrack to this film would be worth having) is also supposed to be a reference back to the structure- back to the way that structure governs everything. Back to the fact that as the villain of the film, a gangster boss, says everything is logical.

Everything is logical and the characters are functionaries within this swirling action- Koistenen in particular seems to never act- the typical loser he takes no action and whenever he does his action is unable to divert the inevitable chain of events. Koistenen also is unable to discern what would actually suit him- a woman who is actually fond of him- the runner of a late night sausage store- who genuinely cares for him but he scarcely notices her until he is almost beyond noticing. He even explicitly rejects her- though she offers a love which is unconditional and redemptive- the fact that he doesn't take it suggests that he has accepted and almost chosen his impassivity and his loser status. Koistenen finds out about the strategy to get rid of him as well- and again he is curiously impassive- he refuses to take the options out even if they could work- he doesn't act whereas the logic around him takes him through to his own destruction.

In some ways those moments where Koistenen could take a decision but doesn't are the flecks of light amidst the darkness- Koistenen's psychological status means that he doesn't take decisions ever- doesn't take his opportunities though they don't come often- these flecks of light though show us that whilst Kaaurismaki beleives that the overall scenery is dark and we are in dusk- there are some moments of light and hope- especially as the film ends and blood drips from our hero's mouth, there is a small signal for the optimists that their vision may be correct.

But overall Koistenen lives in a world summed up by his own line about Prison, 'You couldn't get out, all the doors were locked'- for Koistenen all the doors have always been locked and you can't get out save for by the ultimate futile act- suicide. Koistenen life is a process- the world is filled with vivid colour and yet his eyes express only the grey dullness of his own life- his life which shows no sign for whatever reason of ever changing. This is a profound film about the structuralism of life and the nature of depression- it does have flaws, the film is incredibly subtle possibly too subtle- but there is something interesting in this quiet meditation worth seeing.

Definitely worth a view and possibly more so than Shrek 3 or any of the other third parters that have come out this summer.