Befitting their respective milieu, the pair of films Aki Kaurismäki has thus far made in France have a distinctly Gallic sensibility. While both 1992's La vie de bohème and 2011's Le Havre retain the Finnish auteur's dark, deadpan dimension he's spent a career perfecting in both absurdist scenarios and defeatist critiques alike, these films—spiritual, if not literal, sequels anyway—carry with them a doggedly nationalistic French determinism which their characters likewise pursue in the face of the political and societal discord of the era (which is to say nothing of their deftly woven mixed-raced casts, uniquely utilized film stocks, and region-specific reference points). With 1989's Leningrad Cowboys Go America, Kaurismäki had demonstrated the ability to integrate his ironically aloof, serenely humanist demeanor into new landscapes, but beginning with La vie de bohème, he proved his talent at assimilating multiple foreign, not to mention filmic, tenets and texts into his own previously solidified methodology.
Based loosely on Henri Merger's mid-19th-century series of short stories and, by extension, the celebrated Italian opera adaptation La Bohème, Kaurismäki's postmodern reinterpretation of these parables both reconciled many of the thematic notions he'd been working with over the years as well as refined the stylistic shorthand with which he'd become so proficient. No stranger to tales of the downtrodden, disaffected, and dishonored (he'd previously devoted an entire trilogy of films to the proletarian plight), Kaurismäki instead took concerted advantage of his exotic environment while managing to maintain his inherent tragicomic insight. Concerning the day-to-day travails of a trio of outcast artists—in this case a writer, painter, and composer, all of unique descent—living below the poverty line in an old-fashioned approximation of modern-day Paris, La vie de bohème both reveres and repurposes its source material, ultimately resembling a typically earnest Kaurismäki fable rather than an insincere example of cultural appropriation.
Starring Kaurismäki regulars Matti Pellonpää and Kari Väänänen alongside French screen greats Jean-Pierre Léaud and André Wilms (the former the star of Kaurismäki's previous film, I Hired a Contract Killer; the latter the male protagonist of Le Havre, in which he ostensibly reprised his role of Marcel Marx from this film), La vie de bohème presents its male characters as wayward souls lost in a sea of artistic indifference and naive romanticism. The love interests in each of the central trio's lives inspire their men to persist in the face of economic hardship, despite confronting sickness and starvation along the way. When Mimi (Evelyne Didi) grows gravely unwell upon Rodolfo's (Pellonpää) return from a stint of deportation, the couple, whose feelings are tested when the former falls for another man, attempt to reestablish bonds before either physical or societal ills take permanent toll. Kaurismäki's trademark brand of fatalism, while not as dire as in earlier films such as 1990's The Match Factory Girl, is certainly accounted for here, though there's a crucial sense of perseverance on display, which the director would allow to quite literally blossom in the closing moments of Le Havre.
Told with Kaurismäki's characteristically unfashionable economy of gestures, in spare, discreet, black-and-white tableaux reminiscent of Robert Bresson or Yasujiro Ozu, La Vie de Bohème similarly steels itself against prevailing trends, whether of early-'90s association or a more contemporary variety. Its sensuality is all but sterile, its exoticism unambiguous (the name of the customary Kaurismäki canine is Baudelaire), its humor droll to the point of stupefying. And yet the film remains acutely aware of not only its place within cinematic tradition (furthering the cross-continental connection is a cameo role for Samuel Fuller, in what must be a nod to Godard's Pierrot le Fou), but also its responsibility to its director's own singular thematic and formal preoccupations. And in that sense, maybe it isn't so different after all.
Never released on Region 1 DVD, Aki Kaurismäki's La vie de bohème jumps straight to Blu-ray from Criterion. The picture quality handily exceeds expectations and looks spectacular in motion. Timo Salminen's black-and-white cinematography is rendered sharp, with a pleasingly light patina of grain that nonetheless exhibits a clarity and depth despite the film being over 20 years old. Contrast is expertly balanced, with whites registering brightly and blacks at near-pitch level, while grays smoothly mediate the otherwise monochromatic palette. Sound, meanwhile, is kept authentic with a linear PCM mono track handling the actors' dialogue in crisp and clean fashion, with no noise or artifacts littering the sound field. The film's use of source music comes through strongly but not overwhelmingly, typifying the overall impressive A/V presentation.
Only a couple of digital supplements are offered, but both are worthwhile. First, there's an 11-minute interview with André Wilms about his role in and experience with the film. Second and more substantially is a one-hour behind-the-scenes documentary, shot on location during the film's production and featuring footage and interviews with most all of the principal cast and crew. It's an interesting look at not only Kaurismäki's process, but also his humor, which seems to extend to his actors and collaborators as well. It also gives a sense, despite the intimacy of the finished film, of the scale of the production, which was certainly the director's most elaborate up to that point. Rounding out the package is a handsome booklet featuring an excellent essay on the film by critic Luc Sante.
Debuting in a sterling A/V presentation from Criterion, Aki Kaurismäki's postmodern reinterpretation of Henri Merger's classic parable both reconciled the thematic notions he had been working with over the years as well as refined the stylistic shorthand with which he had become so proficient. [Slant]