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MOVIE REVIEW : Droll 'La Vie de Boheme' Is Still Emotionally Rich

March 18, 1994|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Aki Kaurismaki's droll update of "La Vie de Boheme" takes a dry-as-dust, minimalist approach to the 1861 Henri Murger novel that inspired the 1896 Puccini opera only to wind up surprisingly more emotionally affecting than the celebrated, romantic 1926 King Vidor silent version of the story in which no less than Lillian Gish is Mimi and John Gilbert is Rodolfo.

There's nothing at all glamorous about Kaurismaki's people, who are all seedy, middle-aged, seriously impoverished artists who tend to spend more time drinking red wine at a neighborhood cafe than at easel, piano or typewriter. Matti Pellonpaa's Rodolfo is a wistful Albanian painter living in France illegally, and Evelyne Didi's Mimi is a pretty, but worn past-40 barmaid. Indeed, Rodolfo spends more time hanging out with his pals, Marcel (Andre Wilms), whose 27-act play has no takers, and Schaunard (Kari Vaananen), an avant-garde composer whose noisy compositions are likely no more to impress you than anyone else.

Kaurismaki is Finland's foremost filmmaker and one of the sliest directors in the world. Before we know it, his humorous deadpan take on the pretensions and delusions of these guys gives way to a boundless affection for them. That we don't notice what's happening is largely due to the rigorous austerity of Kaurismaki's style, which is marked by his usual cinematographer Timo Salminen's engraved-like black-and-white images and absolute minimal camera movement. This approach is perfect in short-circuiting sentimentality in a film that ends up celebrating both camaraderie and true love.

What Kaurismaki does is quite simply to introduce us to a bunch of losers and make us care for them more than we would have ever dreamed possible. The more time we spend with them, the more we realize how supportive they are of one another, how quick they are to share whatever comes their way. They are kind, considerate and loyal (as well as being inventive and funny).

Kaurismaki makes us start thinking that how they're spending their lives is not so bad after all--as long as they can count on one another. Poverty may be lousy, but maybe their dreams actually are harmless, and certainly they are sustained by them. Such thoughts seem fairly radical at a time when a premium is put on self-reliance and a relentless honesty with self in a ruthlessly competitive society.

For all his celebration of Bohemian life, Kaurismaki subtly singles out Rodolfo in his quiet but growing love for Mimi, who returns his feelings in kind. Pellonpaa, who has appeared memorably in such Kaurismaki films as "Ariel" and "Crime and Punishment," is appealing with his dark, expressive eyes, full mustache, deep voice and warm presence. He has a wry take on put-upon blue-collar types, those outside the bourgeoisie, and he is well-supported by the demure Didi, Jean-Pierre Leaud as Rodolfo's rich, eccentric client and the rest of the cast, which includes cameo appearances by directors Samuel Fuller (as a chintzy backer of a shoestring women's fashions magazine) and Louis Malle (as a kindly restaurant patron).

Setting is everything in regard to what Kaurismaki evokes, and he tells his story primarily in ancient Parisian neighborhoods that have miraculously changed little since Murger's day. When the camera pulls back, however, to reveal a severe and immense skyscraper looming over a narrow street with its quaint roof line, you're left wondering how the warm, communal spirit that binds together the film's characters could possibly survive in a world of such vast, impersonal structures.

'La Vie de Boheme'

Matti Pellonpaa: Rodolfo

Evelyne Didi: Mimi

Andre Wilms: Marcel

Kari Vaananen: Schaunard

A Kino International release of a Sputnik Oy production in association with Pyramide Productions S.A.--Films A2 (France), the Swedish Film Institute and Pandora Film GmbH (Germany); supported by the Finnish Film Foundation and the Nordic Film and Television Fund. Writer-director-producer Aki Kaurismaki. Based on the novel "Scenes de la vie de Boheme" by Henri Murger. Cinematographer Timo Salminen. Music (selections from popular and classical music). Production designer John Ebden. Sound Jouko Lumme, Timo Linnasalo. In French with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

MPAA rating: Unrated. Times guidelines: Though it has no real violence, its complex style and themes are too adult for most children. * In limited release at the Monica 4-Plex, 1332 2nd St., Santa Monica. (310) 394-9741.

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