When we first met Aki Kaurismäki, in 1989 when “Ariel” had its run as probably the first Finnish film to play theatrically in America since Jörn Donner’s “Portraits of Women” (1970), we more or less fell in love. Lost in the hollow skull of the Reagan-Bush ’80s, suffering the ascension of Spielberg and Ivan Reitman and Shane Black, wondering what remote atoll international art cinema had escaped to, and more or less completely ignorant of Finnish life, we had every reason to embrace this last of the red hot deadpan existentialists, whose films somehow altered the cellular structure of working class depression and turned it into cool comedy. His distinctively bittersweet dyspepsia established Kaurismäki, in a thick run of films that included “Leningrad Cowboys Go America” (1989), “The Match Factory Girl” (1990) and “La Vie de Bohème” (1992), as a new arthouse brand name, a kind of vodka-weary Bresson-meets-Tati.
Kaurismäki is still busy — both “The Man Without a Past” (2002) and “Lights in the Dusk” (2006) made it onto U.S. screens — but it’s his bursting work of the late ’80s and early ’90s that will be remembered, and not merely for their faded hipness. As expert in dry comic timing as Keaton, Kaurismäki is a cunning intelligence interrogating the empathic rhythms of moviewatching by way of Job tragedy and comatose vaudeville. Still, your experience is never preordained: watching a Kaurismäki movie, you may guffaw when no one else on Earth would, and vice-versa. His earliest features are hilarious, but Kaurismäki found his distinctive laugh-or-cry balance and socialist footing with “Shadows in Paradise” (1986), a noir-romance that is neither very noirish nor romantic, but rather establishes its own vocabulary of droll absurdity, of backbeat silences and inexpressive mopeyness, as instant Kaurismäki axioms Matti Pellonpää and Kati Outinen, playing a dimwit garbageman and a kohl-eyed supermarket clerk, find each other in the dreary low-rent corners of Helsinki and, almost off-handedly, go on the run from the law, trying to make a life together. “Trying” may be too strong a word — in Kaurismäki’s films, part of the poignant, cosmic comedy derives from the sense that the characters’ options are already spent, their life energy is all but used up, and that they go through the motions of life out of habit and a residue of preposterous hope. It’s a minor-key masterpiece, but every Kaurismäki film feels like a blessing, as he balances a rueful gallows humor with genuine sympathy for his near-catatonic people, and creates a visual sensibility so rigorous and unpatronizing that it musters metaphoric notions about the meaning of human life and about socioeconomic injustice without lifting a finger. “Ariel” (1988) plays out like a miniaturized Hugo novel, as a grizzled out-of-work miner (Turo Pajala, looking like a Finnish Colin Farrell) drives south through Finland in a dead man’s Cadillac, meets a lonely single mom (who, in contrast, works around the clock in a vast variety of jobs), and succumbs to a desperate life of crime. Ironically, given the movie’s success internationally, it seems like the milder entry in Kaurismäki’s so-called “proletariat trilogy,” perhaps because it encompasses familiar noir elements (including a prison break and a bank robbery, all handled with the flatfooted simplicity Kaurismäki has made his own).
Then there’s “The Match Factory Girl,” a wintry, austere, brutally funny lower-depths horror show focused on Outinen’s Iris, a plug-ugly, dour, spiritually wasted young woman stuck in a Helsinki factory job and living with her abusive parents. She doesn’t even speak for nearly 30 minutes into the movie, as there is no reason for her to; her family communicates better with the TV, which is busy broadcasting images of political rebellion from around the world, primarily from Tiananmen Square. With just such encouragement, she impetuously — though expressionlessly — buys a red dress, and her sickly routine is altered forever, attracting a sunken-eyed louse of a man who knocks her up. As he tries to cut her loose, Iris turns an invisible corner, and begins to exact revenge on the world. Call it Finnish gothic (although there’s nothing pulpy or expressionist about the movie) if you must, but the film’s essentially a despondent, dead-stare comedy about misery obtained and dealt back, as if a jukebox-era Buster Keaton had in fact been exiled to the outskirts of the civilized world to make movies (instead of the sunlit pastures of California) and grew monstrously bitter as a result. Kaurismäki deliberately engages Bresson’s “Mouchette” (“I decided to make a film,” he’s been quoted as saying, “that will make Robert Bresson seem like a director of epic action pictures.”), just as he finally subverts it (Iris never contemplates suicide) and uses the idea of distanced purity for the sake of yuks. Outinen’s hangdog visage transforms one horrible humiliation after another into ghastly sight gags, while the dizzy seesawing between comedy and crushing tragedy comes to seem a formal joke onto itself, beat perhaps only by the long, stone-still sequence set to the Renegades’ “My Baby Threw Up in My New Cadillac.” You can’t find anything wrong with “The Match Factory Girl” — in its squalid little corner of the universe, it’s a perfect and beautiful creature.