La Vie de Boheme
directed by Aki Kaurismaki
at the Carpenter Center
through October 3
You could be forgiven for thinking that "La Vie de Boheme," the latest film from Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki, is a cinematic adaptation of Puccini's opera of almost the same name. The confusion shouldn't last long, though. The film's first scene cuts from a rooftop panorama of Paris to a shot of the starving writer Marcel (Andre Wilms) digging through a pile of trash, muttering "merde."
Even though both work from the same source, Henri Murger's 19th century novel Scenes de la vie de boheme, where Puccini draws his demi-monde of starving artists with heavy strokes of romantic melodrama, Kaurismaki chooses ironic distance and absurd comedy. The result is a witty but frustrating film, whose saving grace is the beauty of its images of Paris.
Kaurismaki resents the opera's sentimental excess, but it isn't clear what he proposes to replace it with. The film is too detached to be convincing as either comedy or melodrama. Kaurismaki's trio of impecunious artists (for some reason, the philosopher Colline has been banished from the film) seem trapped, almost frightened by the camera.
The protagonists of Murger's novel are flamboyant, young artists, but the 150 years since its publication have not been kind to these bohemians. Kaurismaki makes them too scruffy to be dashing and too old, it seems, to be passionate. Inexplicably, Rodolfo (Matti Pellonpaa) has been made an illegal immigrant from Albania (perhaps this detail is meant to account for his occasionally irritating accent). All three artists seem to have given up the struggle to attain fame and wealth about 10 years ago. For most of the film, they can barely manage the energy to light a cigarette.
The film's rather homely Mimi (Evelyne Didi) isn't the fragile beauty of Puccini's opera, but she turns out to be just as consumptive. Her romance with Rodolfo is halfhearted; in a movie preoccupied with hunger, the couple's appetite for each other is depressingly dull. Musette (Christine Murillo) is so marginal to the film's action as to be an extra.
To his credit, Kaurismaki manages to fill the film's emotional void with a truly brilliant absurdist humor--as if Samuel Beckett had collaborated with him on the screenplay. As funny as this can be, the characters suffer from their constant deadpanning (as in Beckett). They lose depth, becoming suckers for the director's mocking wit.
Despite fundamental plot weaknesses, the film is visually stunning, and, more than the absurdity, this is its saving grace. It is not really about the tragic love of Rodolfo and Mimi, or even about the life of dissolute artists. The film's only true heroine is Paris, the gritty, alienating city of the post-war years. To achieve this quality of romantic seediness, Kaurismaki fled the Left Bank for the working-class suburbs of Malakoff and Ivry-sur-Seine.
The decision to film in black-and-white is crucial to the Kaurismaki's success in creating a subtly textured evocation of the city. It as if Kaurismaki had lifted his film from the photographs of Tabard, Izis and Cartier-Bresson. Just as Peter Greenaway calls to mind old master paintings in the composition of his scenes, Kaurismaki insinuates these great photographers of Paris, as well as the tradition of French black-and-white film. He spares no effort to achieve this effect, using a double dose of chiaroscuro lighting and urban mist.
Murger's novel was originally published as a series of anecdotal sketches for the comic magazine Le Corsaire in 1845, and "La Vie de Boheme" is faithful to the novel in at least this respect: it seems like a series of loosely connected episodes, and of photographic tableaux. In fact, the film's only logic is visual, tracing the progression of the seasons and the alternation of night and day in the changing contours of the urban landscape. Cinematographer Timo Salminen has done some brilliant work, coaxing charm aplenty from the city of light (and, in this case, shadow) without resorting to visual cliches or exuberant panoramas.
There are so many shots of Paris (not simply of the view-down-the-Champs-Elyseeshey-we're-in-Paris variety) that the film's foreground and background are reversed. The city takes center stage, and the actors become simply street performers, amusing us with their starving artist routine. Set against the backdrop of "La Vie de Boheme," Kaurismaki has produced a gorgeous film about Paris.