Aki Kaurismäki is burnt out and taking a break
Director nevertheless back in Cannes and at his regular hotel
By Veli-Pekka Lehtonen in Cannes
At the beginning of last week, three men were sat around a table in the foyer restaurant of the Grand Hotel in Cannes, engaged in negotations. One was the Finnish film director Aki Kaurisimäki and the other two were producer Jim Stark and the Norwegian film director Bent Hamer.
What they were talking about, we have no idea at the present.
A few minutes later, Kaurismäki gets up and comes over towards our table.
The chair I offer him at the large round table will not do. "I never sit with my back to the door", he says, and moves around to the other side.
It is necessary to head round and join him there. It transpires, you see, that Kaurismäki speaks exceptionally softly. It's only by sitting right next to the man that you can hear anything at all.
Aki Kaurismäki is back in Cannes, and back at his old haunt The Grand, because he was invited to the Film Festival as one of the makers of Chacun son cinéma, a compilation of 35 short films in which leading international auteurs - 34 of them plus Kaurismäki - explore their relationship to the movie theatre in around three minutes each. The film was made for the 60th holding of the Cannes Film Festival, this year.
Kaurismäki has seen the completed work just the day before we meet. He is delighted with it.
"I'm a sentimental old turd, and I was taken by it", he says.
"To use a worn-out old phrase: 'it was beautiful'. Everybody did their best", the director goes on.
Kaurismäki shot his own contribution close to his home, in Karkkila. In The Foundry ("La Fonderie"), a group of foundry-workers head for their lunchbreak - and the cinema. There they watch the first film ever projected for the entertainment of the paying general public: Louis Lumière's La Sortie des usines Lumière. In a nice touch, the old film from 1895 shows factory workers leaving the Lumière photographic plate works in Lyons.
Historic stuff, indeed, but many of Kaurismäki's colleagues on the project used their episodes to depict love on the cinema seats. Why did Kaurismäki not go this route?
"Because the Kaurismäki you refer to is a gentleman. He goes to the cinema to watch films."
The Kaurismäki in question is now in a restaurant in France, where you are still allowed to smoke, if you are drinking beer.
The 60th anniversary compilation movie was an event at this year's Cannes Film Festival, but Kaurismäki's part in the venture has not really been singled out for praise or anything else.
At the table in The Grand, Kaurismäki makes a point of noting the 3-minute short made by his colleague Wim Wenders for Chacun son cinéma. People in the war-torn Congo going to the cinema once again. Wenders' film was among the most "political" on view, and it appealed to Kaurismäki.
Alright then, why was your short not political?
"Why does someone not do what they should do?" Kaurismäki begins his reply.
It appears as though many of Kaurismäki's comments are in two parts. The pattern is a consistent one: often the opening salvo takes one close to the subject, but it is only in the second part that he generally becomes more rhetorical, contemplative. As in this case.
"Maybe it is about weakness, or simple stupidity."
Oh. But let us not allow the artist any more room for self-flagellation. We'll change the subject.
It has been rumoured around town that Kaurismäki is taking an artistic break. No movies in the pipeline. Is this so?
"Guess if I'm enjoying it", grins Kaurismäki.
I don't know. Are you?
"Yes, I am. A man knows himself. There were signs of getting burnt out."
Signs? How did they manifest themselves, then?
"A look of desperation in the eyes."
How did you spot it?
"In the mirror."
Kaurismäki comments that he has been feeling tired for years. It seems a strange thing to say, since four years ago The Man Without A Past won the Jury Grand Prize at Cannes, along with a hatful of other nominations and prizes elsewhere. Was he tired when he made it?
Before long, Kaurismäki fesses up and admits that the basic thing is that he has completely lost his sense of ambition.
"It went west back in the 1980s."
So, what was your ambition like when you still had it, I ask. Full of pep, answers Kaurismäki.
"I thought that Finland was no worse than other countries. That the Finnish cinema had to be taken out and shown to the world", he says.
"And that's what I did. But it was a taxing experience", he says with a trace of innuendo.
"I'm practically dead, but I'm still walking around."
This sounds pretty bleak. And it looks a bit that way, too. If you look at the director, he doesn't appear to be in such great shape. But is he really as "done-in" as he says - dead-man-walking?
Just a few minutes before, Kaurismäki has stated how in his year off from directing he has done a bit of fishing, gone mushroom picking in the woods, and built some greenhouses.
"I spend the evenings digging knives out from my back. Still, nothing much wrong with that; at least it's better than picking one's teeth" he says. "There. That puts a bit of humour into your article."
Who put the knives in, then?
"Talentless colleagues in the main, I guess."
Then he stops for a minute and considers what he has said. "Hmm... that was pretty blunt, but you can leave it in."
Maybe we should change the subject again. Even though Kaurismäki is on an artistic sabbatical, earlier this spring he was up in the vanguard of those opposing the planned merger of universities in the Helsinki area (see attached article).
"Yes, I rushed to sign that petition as soon as I possibly could", says Kaurismäki.
"The top university they have in mind means as far as I can see it that all the idiots in Finland will gather together and pay each other a salary."
That's a rather damning line. Was there anything else?
"You can't really pin it down any more than that. It's neo-liberalism at play. Grind the impoverished down. Kill anything that moves. Gimme the money. Let the poor die off. That's what it is all about."
But even more blockbusting claims are in store. According to Kaurismäki, with the advent of the mooted top university all the money would be channeled to the same CIA account. "Or thereabouts, or to Putin's account, which is just as big."
One of Kaurismäki's long-cherished dreams is to write a book.
"I don't think it'll get beyond being a dream", he says softly.
"The dilemma is that I'd have to give a thrashing to Kafka and Gogol at one and the same time. Frankly I don't rate any of the others as real authors. And doing that would be a tough task for anyone. I'm not likely to pull it off."
Through his production company Sputnik, Kaurismäki is apparently ready and more than willing to produce a film directed by another hand, if only "some young talent" shows up. Kaurismäki himself has completed 18 feature films, and has set his sights on 20. Will his break from creative things be more likely to end in a film or a book?
"I think a film is the more likely. If I live, then it will be a film. You can't teach an old dog new tricks."
We then learn what it was the three men had been discussing at the other table. A film is in the works.
Producer Stark would like to have the Nordic directors Kaurismäki, Hamer and Iceland's Dagur Kári make a joint project, with a half-hour slot for each of them.
What sort of time-frame?
"Lifelong", replies Kaurismäki laconically.
Aki Kaurismäki turned 50 in April. "It is extraordinarily liberating to be fifty", he says. It is no longer worth even longing for one's youth, he goes on.
"Time now to concentrate on this third phase, that of dying."
There is a pause, and then comes the anticipated second part of the man's reply.
"Being 40-something was a pretty vicious game. I was thinking, shit, I'm never going to get through this. But fifty is cool, you know, you can listen to old Dave Lindholm recordings and keep dead quiet."
Kaurismäki has earlier commented on how he watches movies. There, too, silence is an integral part of the process.
"If the film is good, then it carries you off to another place. I was just recently watching Le fils by Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne with my wife. When it was done, neither of us said a word. An hour or so later, my wife nodded. I nodded back."
Yup. You could not get anything more Kaurismäki-esque than that.
Maybe it is time to change the subject yet again. Let's go back to that Cannes compilation movie. There was a bit of a scandal involved. At the press briefing, at which Kaurismäki was also in attendance, Roman Polanski threw a tantrum over the simplistic questions being asked by the gathered journalists - "such poor questions, such empty questions - you're no longer interested in what's going on in the cinema" - before he stomped out in protest. .
Kaurismäki says he understands the journalists, because he was one himself in his youth.
"Polanski was right and also wrong. It is perhaps a bit dandyish to expect them to ask us anything special and erudite, when nobody is really any smarter than anyone else. As if we would actually have the answer to anything."
This seems like a good place to leave it. Aki Kaurismäki remains sitting in the lobby of the Grand Hotel, at a big round table with white linen tablecloths. Back to the wall, naturally.
Ah, but there is one small matter he has not commented on yet.
"There has never been a more pathetic government running a worse country than we've got right now."
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 24.5.2007
Previously in HS International Edition:
Idea of Finnish top university generates heated debate (17.4.2007)
Aki Kaurismäki: "Where have all those years gone?" (31.1.2006)
Internet Movie Database: Aki Kaurismäki
Aki Kaurismäki (Wikipedia)
VELI-PEKKA LEHTONEN / Helsingin Sanomat