The Review/ Feature/
Aki Kaurismäki’s films always go to the dogs
Exploring the Finnish master’s canine obsession
Aki Kaurismäki’s The Other Side of Hope is now playing in new release at TIFF Bell Lightbox.
Each September for the last 20 years, I have loaded up my car with clothes and a few bare necessities, and hit the road from Buffalo, New York to Toronto for TIFF. Each September, I have quietly hoped for a new Aki Kaurismäki film. Most of the time, I am disappointed: he has made only five features in the last two decades. But this year was a lucky one. His latest, The Other Side of Hope, is one of the year’s most winning films. A poster for the movie shows Khaled (Sherwan Haji), a Syrian refugee in Finland, with a dog in his arms, an image which foregrounds both a recent motif of Kaurismäki’s cinema — the plight of refugees in Europe, which he previously addressed in Le Havre (2011) — and another, curiously long-running one.
If Hitchcock fans always keep their eyes peeled for the director’s requisite cameo in his films, I like to think that Kaurismäki admirers keep their eyes peeled too — for the inevitable dog that appears in almost every Kaurismäki movie. The Slovenian artist Nina Slejko Blom has created a witty series of paintings devoted to these dogs, one portrait per film. Fittingly, given the dry irony that is a hallmark of Kaurismäki’s work, her series begins with a painting of a cat, as it was only after featuring a feline in his first feature, the Dostoyevsky adaptation Crime and Punishment (1983), that Kaurismäki turned to canines.
The writer Luc Sante once made the bold claim that “no director in the entire history of motion pictures has understood and showcased dogs as effectively as [Kaurismäki] does. Dogs appear in nearly all of his films, and they are never there for merely decorative purposes.” I happen to agree, and find the director’s achievement especially remarkable because dogs are never the primary focus of his movies. Their appearances are, in fact, extraordinarily brief: when I took a stopwatch to The Other Side of Hope, I found that this particular pooch — notwithstanding her prominence on the film’s poster — is on screen for less than a minute.
So why is it that the dogs in Kaurismäki’s films, despite their fleeting appearances, register with such vividness and make such an improbably lasting impression? Before we dive into this question, it might be helpful to flash back a century to early cinema, which was fascinated with animals. As Toronto-based scholar James Leo Cahill tells us, animal films were phenomenally popular in pre-WWI France — featured both in documentary shorts (which frequently opened evenings at the cinema) and fiction films — and it was common for French studios to maintain menageries of their own.
Around this time, French film culture was buzzing with dialogue and debates around the idea of photogénie: cinema’s special power to seize images of everyday life (faces, objects, the natural world) and render them with an extraordinary and captivating effect on screen. One of photogénie’s key theorists, the filmmaker Jean Epstein, wrote poetically about this primal cinematic phenomenon, while admitting that photogénie was mysterious, ineffable, hard to define. He also awarded pride of place in cinema to animals, believing that the medium had a special ability to capture their likenesses while retaining their mystery and wildness.
Early cinema, as Nico Baumbach notes, was especially drawn to images of crowds, children, and animals, because such images seemed to escape total control, conveying a feeling of unselfconsciousness and unpredictability. But as the film industry became more economically ambitious, it also began to orient itself to a middle-class audience growing in affluence. Accordingly, animals — because they could not always be directed as completely as human actors — diminished in their prominence on the screen. When they did return in the era of the big studios a couple of decades later, it was as well-trained actors in their own right, their mystery and wildness now bent to the demands of anthropocentrism.
Still, throughout the years there has remained a fascinating strand of animal-centred cinema that attempts to impose direction on animals while also realizing the futility of this endeavour. Baumbach recounts Robert Bresson’s struggle to train the donkey who played the title role in his Au hasard Balthazar: as the director was famous for casting non-actors who would deliver flat, emotionally blank performances — actors who do not act, but simply are — he accordingly chose an absolutely untrained donkey to play his Balthazar. However, when he began instructing the animal, he found it utterly intractable — refusing to perform every thing the filmmaker expected it to perform, while giving him everything he thought the animal would refuse. Given Bresson’s notoriety for endless rehearsing, what results is a film of great precision and control that nevertheless showcases the alterity —the radical “otherness” — of the animal.
Kaurismäki as well belongs to this cinematic lineage. On the one hand, he makes films that are meticulously designed, instantly identifiable from a single frame. “Aki Land” (as his actors have been known to characterize it) is a strikingly distinctive audiovisual world, comprised of performers with a Bressonian, deadpan affect, a deliberate, anti-realist use of colour, and an expressive use of stillness that makes every movement and sound conspicuous. On the other hand, unlike Bresson — and owing something to Kaurismäki’s personal roots in the ethos of punk — the director’s shooting methods have a looseness and irreverence to them: barring obvious technical gaffes, he rarely does more than one or two takes of each scene. This also means that he spends little effort training the dogs that appear in his films — in fact, rather than going to the trouble of hiring “performer” animals, his movies simply feature his own pets.
Even though he has been making feature films for 35 years, the place of canines in the Kaurismäki universe has evolved markedly over time. There are, I would like to propose, three distinct periods — early, middle, and late — in the director’s filmography if we view it from the vantage point of dogs, their role and function.
In early Kaurismäki, dogs are not individuated — they appear briefly, and purely for symbolic import. Emblematic of this period is the first film in the director’s “Proletariat Trilogy,” Shadows in Paradise (1986), in which a garbage collector confesses his entrepreneurial dreams: he wants to start a new trash collection company so he can die behind a desk rather than behind a wheel (a typically dry Kaurismäki touch). But before he can act on his plans, he has a heart attack while on the job, and expires on the spot. Cut to a surprising image: a wasteland, strewn with trash, with a black dog darting across the ground over filthy puddles of water. The image is brief (just a few seconds), and is the only appearance of a dog in the movie.
Given that Kaurismäki is an ardent cinephile who helped found the Midnight Sun Film Festival, it seems likely that this dog is a cinephilic reference, either to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1978), with its iconic black dog in the Zone, or Satyajit Ray’s Aparajito (1956), in which the death of Apu’s father on the banks of the Ganges is immediately followed, via a cut, by a flock of pigeons taking flight, as if his soul were leaving the body.
In Ariel (1988), the trilogy’s next installment, social realism meets genre film (a favoured Kaurismäki combo). The protagonist is a coal miner who loses his job when the mine is shuttered, then moves from country to city in an ancient Cadillac his father bequeaths him right before he kills himself. Things go from bad to worse: the man gets mugged, but when he accidentally spies his assailant and tries to apprehend him, he is captured on security camera and unjustly thrown into prison for assault.
The night he and his cellmate break out of prison, we get our only glimpse of dogs in the film: police German shepherds, seen en masse and in a blur. “A cat,” Chris Marker once said, “is never on the side of power”; we could say the same for dogs in Kaurismäki, with Ariel being the exception that proves the rule.
The middle period begins at the dawn of the 1990s with La Vie de Bohème (1992), an adaptation of Henri Murger’s novel Scenes from a Bohemian Life (1851), which had previously served as the basis of one of the best-known of all operas, Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème (1896). Both a fond portrait and a satire of Parisian bohemia, the movie centres on the painter Rodolfo, his lover Mimi, and his fellow non-genius artist friends. The dog here is Rodolfo’s, and even has a name: Baudelaire.
Along with French legend Jean-Pierre Léaud, who plays a rich patron of the arts, Baudelaire is the most prominent model for the painter’s decidedly average portraits.
Rodolfo is an immigrant who, at one point, gets deported back to Albania from France; he is also the first of several significant immigrant characters in Kaurismäki’s oeuvre who is paired with a canine companion. Kaurismäki sometimes shoots (and even uses) dual endings to his films, and a good example pops up here as Baudelaire finds a romantic partner, awarded the happy ending denied — as we know from Puccini’s tearjerker opera — to the tragic human couple.
The ’90s were a period of economic distress in Finland: “I couldn’t bear to look at myself in the mirror,” Kaurismäki said at the time, “until I made a film about unemployment.” The resulting film, Drifting Clouds (1996), might be his masterpiece. A wife and husband are struck by catastrophe when they lose their jobs at the same time: he is a streetcar driver who is let go because public transport is on the decline, and she a restaurant manager who is sacked along with the entire staff when the small business is taken over by a rapacious corporate chain. Adding to the weight of their tragic circumstance is a past trauma: the death of a child.
The dog in Drifting Clouds functions as a replacement for the departed son, accompanying the couple wherever they go (even to the movies, where he is deposited with the cashier for the duration of the screening). The ending comes on a tender and moving note: the couple’s new restaurant venture has had a not-disastrous opening day, and they step out into the street, dog in arms, to cast a hopeful look at the skies.
At the turn of the century, Kaurismäki achieved his first big commercial breakthrough with The Man Without a Past (2002), which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. (As a protest against the US invasion of Iraq, he refused to fly to America for the ceremony.) In this poignant work, an amnesiac (simply named “M” in the credits), far from home and rescued by a poor family living in a trailer, slowly rebuilds his life with help from neighbours, his co-workers at the Salvation Army, and a gentle dog incongruously named Hannibal.
The dog’s purpose in the film is twofold: he is, first, an agent of healing, part of a family unit as is the canine norm in middle-period Kaurismäki; but he is also a source of comedy as, prior to his appearance, the film hints at his reputation as an “attack dog.” When he then comes on screen for the first time, his improbably beatific countenance and demeanour get the movie’s biggest laugh. Each year since 2001, the international critics at the Cannes Film Festival have bestowed an award called the Palm Dog on what they judge to be the best canine performer of the year; Tähti, who played Hannibal, took one home with him.
The film noir exercise Lights in the Dusk (2006) might be said to inaugurate Kaurismäki’s late period, in which dogs are consistently identified with Otherness. Kaurismäki’s best films have always felt like high-wire acts that negotiate opposing impulses: humanistic vs. near-nihilistic; nostalgic vs. present-rooted; sentimental vs. acerbic. A delicate (even miraculous) balance is necessary to pull off this negotiation, and Lights in the Dusk, despite its assured image-making, does not quite succeed. It is gratuitously, almost monotonously downbeat, and the lead role is miscast. But it does mark the first time that a person of colour has a significant role in a Kaurismäki film: a Black boy who rescues a dog outside a bar. At the climax (in one of the movie’s few affirmative touches), the boy and dog act to save the life of the protagonist. Dogs in Kaurismäki will henceforth be primarily associated with displaced people of colour.
In Le Havre, the dog Laika belongs to Marcel Marx, the playwright from La Vie de Bohème (now 20 years older and once again played by the actor André Wilms). When Marcel takes in an African boy who is on the run from immigration authorities, the dog becomes the child’s protector, accompanying him wherever he goes, sleeping next to him, guarding him, and becoming a full-fledged member of the community that comes together to save the boy from the state — one that makes no distinction between human and non-human. (Laika, let us note, won a Special Jury Prize Palm Dog at Cannes for her non-performance.)
Which brings us full circle to The Other Side of Hope, in which Haji’s fugitive immigrant Khaled and the stray dog Koistinen are both adopted by the staff of a shakily managed restaurant. Their fates remain intertwined to the very end; movingly, they even share the film’s final image. Kaurismäki won the Best Director prize at the Berlin Film Festival for this film, and announced that this would be his swan song; but he contradicted himself (in typical fashion) a few months later (“I always say that”), adding that he was too old to switch to digital, and his desire to make films in the future would depend on whether laboratories would still be around to process celluloid. Given the modest and opportune resurgence of film-processing facilities around the world recently, I am keeping my fingers crossed for another Kaurismäki film — dog included — in five years.