Aki Kaurismäki's third literary adaptation, Bohemian Life, may also be his best. Crime and Punishment was brilliantly made (and, remarkably, that was his directorial debut) and Juha is a masterful tragedy, not to mention a magnificent revival of the silent film. As for Hamlet Goes Business, the conclusion was a little overdone, but overall it remains an interesting version of Shakespeare's play. But it's in Bohemian Life, based on Henri Murger's story collection, that Kaurismäki's passion for the subject is felt the most. He always wanted to make this film, and when he finally did the result was wonderful.
Beautifully shot in black and white, the film explores the intertwined lives of three artists living in Paris: a French playwright, Marcel Marx (André Wilms), an Irish composer, Schaunard (Kari Väänänen), and an Albanian painter, Rodolfo (Matti Pellonpää). Together, they struggle to maintain a certain decency in their lives, whether that involves tricking their landlord or using a customer's (Jean-Pierre Léaud, grandiose as Rodolfo's portrait model) jacket for a couple of hours without the latter noticing anything. They don't demand much, in fact their friendship is more than enough to ensure life goes on fairly well.
At this point, a new character appears: Mimi (Evelyne Didi), a barmaid. Rodolfo falls in love with her, and from there on, things begin to change, and not for the best: the Albanian is sent back home, and when he returns, six months later, everything's different. Can old bonds be restored? Can the situation go back to the way it was? Kaurismäki takes his time to make us acquainted with his characters (hence the unusually long running time - most of his films run to 70 minutes, 80 tops; this one is 100 minutes long), and that's why the movie hits us hard when it has to: having followed their combined fates since the beginning, we have the feeling that we know them, a fact that contributes to making the sucker-punch epilogue even more devastating.
The three bohemians are humble but nice people: the simplicity of their lifestyle makes us connect with them on a visceral level, cheering for them when life's good and crying when it suddenly turns bad. Pellonpää, in particular, gives the performance of a lifetime (alongside Shadows in Paradise), his brooding yet incredibly sweet Rodolfo being the heart and soul of this movie (most unforgettable moment, upon being asked by Mimi to be an Albanian gentleman: "Gentleman, no. Albanian, yes").
Bohemian Life represents a successful transfer of Finnish mentality and attitudes to a timeless Paris: you never stop and think there's something that doesn't belong there. It's all so perfect, in its sad and happy moments, and Kaurismäki can be very proud of the film he considers to be his favorite.