The Leningrad Cowboys from the movie "Leningrad Cowboys Go America." (Criterion Collection, )
Paradoxes abound in the films of the Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki, a master of the tragicomic. His funniest jokes tend to be the most painful ones. Seldom wavering from a lugubrious deadpan and populated with sad sacks who seem incapable of cracking a smile or shedding a tear, his films can achieve the emotional force of classic melodrama. Fables of a sort, they remain grounded in a tangible social reality. Even at their saddest and most despairing, they contain glimmers of hope.
In his mid-50s and a festival favorite since the '80s, Kaurismaki has joined the ranks of the master auteurs — his latest, "Le Havre," set to open this week, was perhaps the most warmly received film at Cannes this year — but in the U.S. at least, he has remained somewhat overlooked. "Le Havre" is being released by Janus Films, the sister company of the Criterion Collection, and for those looking to catch up, a pair of DVD boxed sets are available on Criterion's midprice line Eclipse.
Compassionate chronicles of the romantic, economic and existential plights of blue-collar outsiders, the films in the "Proletariat Trilogy" set, made between 1986 and 1990, put Kaurismaki on the international map. The "Leningrad Cowboys" set (out this week) shows off his goofier side, not to mention his taste for Soviet kitsch and American rockabilly.
A fanciful invention of Kaurismaki and members of the Finnish band the Sleepy Sleepers, the Leningrad Cowboys have grown from a conceptual gag into a genuine cult band, thanks largely to the 1989 film "Leningrad Cowboys Go America," the pompadoured polka-rockers' first appearance in a Kaurismaki feature after several mid-'80s music videos. (Still going strong, they've just released an album, "Buena Vodka Social Club.")
Likably bizarre as they are, the one-joke appeal of the Cowboys wears a bit thin over three films, although the historical context of the end of the Cold War gives the movies a certain frisson. The shaggy-dog road movie "Go America" propels the band from the frozen tundra to New York and on a cross-country trip south as it heads for a gig in Mexico. Jim Jarmusch, Kaurismaki's closest American counterpart, puts in a cameo as a used-car dealer.
Its mirror image, "Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses" (1994), tracks more or less the opposite journey, with Siberia ironically filling the role of the promised land. "Total Balalaika Show" (1994) is a rousing concert documentary of a performance in Helsinki's Senate Square that united the Cowboys with the Russian Red Army Chorus before a crowd of 70,000 — an event that the filmmaker Chris Marker called an emblematic moment in "the brief autumn of utopia that followed the fall of the Empire."
Kaurismaki's core concerns can be found in the "proletariat" films, which, among other things, reveal an empathetic attention to the rituals and rhythms of work that is, to say the least, rare in contemporary cinema. It's no coincidence that the director apparently worked as many as 40 jobs before he turned to filmmaking: dishwasher, postman, film critic, the list goes on.
"Shadows in Paradise" (1986) is a dry romantic comedy involving a garbage collector and a checkout clerk. The lovers in "Ariel" (1988) are an unemployed miner and a single mother balancing an absurd number of jobs. The downtrodden heroine of "The Match Factory Girl" (1990), one of Kaurismaki's bleakest films, is trapped in an existence of assembly-line tedium.
Time and again, Kaurismaki has tackled social themes — unemployment, homelessness and, in the new "Le Havre," immigration in Europe — without ever making so-called issue films. Set in the titular French port city, "Le Havre" draws on the memory of French Resistance dramas to tell the story of an old shoeshine man who becomes the caretaker of an African boy who has arrived on European shores aboard a cargo container.
With a self-conscious happy ending that is pure movie artifice, it's a film that makes explicit what Kaurismaki's fans have always known: beneath the gloom and dejection of his cinema beats an optimistic heart.