Desperate Times: Kaurismäki and Bresson

Ian Haydn Smith
5/08/17
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Aki Kaurismäki knows a thing or two about desperation. His films feature their fair share of deadpan wit, but his characters can often be found in the bleakest of circumstances, either eking a living in dead-end jobs, facing down insurmountable odds, even facing death itself. There is always humour, but often of the darkest kind. The kindness of strangers sometimes helps characters out of a scrape, with thugs or the law. But hope is the last thing you expect to see in a Kaurismäki film, let alone the title of one.

The Other Side of Hope, like its predecessor Le Havre (2011), unfolds in a port town – this time the director’s own Helsinki. It also features an illegal immigrant as one of its central protagonists. Here it’s Khaled, who managed to escape the atrocities of the Syrian conflict with his sister. But he lost her along the way. Initially hopeful that he will receive refugee status in Finland, which will allow him to continue his search for his beloved sibling, when a decision is made against his staying he escapes the immigration centre he lives in. Through a series of accidents, he ends up working for a salesman who has recently entered the restaurant business. Wikström’s transformation into a restauranteur is ripe for comic set-ups and Kaurismäki reliably delivers. (The attempt at transforming the restaurant into a gourmet sushi parlour is a good reason alone for watching the film).

The signature pregnant pauses, intentionally drab set design (who would want to eat at that restaurant?) and cutaways to a band playing rock music that are present in most Kaurismäki films, are all here. But like Le HavreThe Other Side of Hope reaches out, beyond this insular world, stressing the importance of understanding – allowing ourselves to consider how other lives are lived and our responsibility to help make them better. Kaurismäki doesn’t moralise – there is no easy solution to the situation Khaled finds himself in. And haters, even with the best will in the world, will continue to hate. But a little understanding might just change some people’s opinion and for Khaled that’s the difference between life and death.

Death is the pitiful outcome of Robert Bresson’s Money (L’argent), his stark and devastating final film. Loosely adapted from Leo Tolstoy’s 1904 novella ‘The Forged Coupon’, it suggests that we all live on the cusp of chaos. On any given day, individual events that may normally have no impact on our lives, when played out in a particular order, have the power to destroy the very fabric our rational world is comprised of, resulting in behaviour that we would otherwise abhor. That the style Bresson adopts is so simple only emphasises the tragedy for all concerned.

A director whose austere approach defined his career (of his generation, he shares that mantle with Dreyer), Bresson found deep resonance in the most deceptively simple stories. From his third film, Diary of a Country Priest (1951), and the subsequent A Man Escaped (1956) and Pickpocket (1959), Bresson employed non-professional actors to take on the roles of individuals who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances. Au hazard Balthazar (1966) saw a mule take centre stage and through its treatment Bresson recorded our propensity for cruelty. In Mouchette (1967), a young girl was burdened with society’s callous indifference. (Her heart-breaking final moments in the film inspired the self-harming recalcitrance of the main character in 1997’s La vie de Jesus, the feature debut by Bruno Dumont whose work has been influenced by Bresson’s work. Although his latest, Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc – screening in this festival – is a world away from Bresson’s minimalist 1962 masterpiece The Trial of Joan of Arc.)

L’Argent is one of the great directorial swansongs. Made when he was 82, Bresson eschews easy answers. The violent crime committed in the film is shocking. But for society to move forward, we must reach further in our attempts at understanding others. If we don’t, as both Bresson and Kaurismäki make clear, we are all likely doomed.


Ian Haydn Smith

Ian Haydn Smith is a British writer and editor. Formerly the editor of the International Film Guide, he is the co-author of New British Cinema and author of the forthcoming The Story of Photography. He has attended New Horizons since 2008.


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