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Aki Kaurismäki’s Proletariat Trilogy, “Shadow”

Aki Kaurismäki’s Proletariat Trilogy, “Shadow” (photo)

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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).

09232008_amtchgirl.jpgThen 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.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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