In Helsinki, a lonely night watchman is caught up in a series of misadventures with a femme fatale and a crooked businessman.In Helsinki, a lonely night watchman is caught up in a series of misadventures with a femme fatale and a crooked businessman.In Helsinki, a lonely night watchman is caught up in a series of misadventures with a femme fatale and a crooked businessman.
Though Koiskinen's slicked-back hairstyle wouldn't seem fashionable outside of a Forties gangster film, he's really not a bad-looking guy; he just isn't a leading man. But Koiskinen's outcast status is a given we can't question. He has a slightly hangdog quality. He has dreams of starting his own company, but this seems a laughable illusion; he is scorned even by his coworkers. He has no life. The uniform, cigarettes, the lockers, the cold nightly guard duty, a dreary flat. These are the boundaries of his existence.
In fact what's curiously enchanting about Kaurismäki: the analytical certainty of his downbeat riffs.
Quite inexplicably, Mirja (Maria Jarvenhelmi), a well-dressed, striking, enigmatic woman, almost albino in her blondness, picks Koiskinen up in a bar and begins dating him. How can he resist? Her motives, however, are none too good. In fact they are of the worst kind. She is the agent of a nefarious higher power. You might not think Finland had gangsters but this is Helsinki, and the wide shots of the dark city at night are luminous and powerful, underlined by haunting tango music -- not an arbitrary but an indigenous choice, because after Argentina, Finland is the first capital of the tango. The movie is drenched in romantic music -- Puccini, Manon Lescaut, Gardel's "Volver," and Finnish tangos. There is a sweep about it, but the sweep is ominous.
Koiskinen has no part of the city's power, except as its victim. He exists to be exploited -- and with rigor. It's sad, because no matter how bad things get, he goes on dreaming. But his life is a dream, and he is unaware of what's happening to him. Out of deference, Finns don't like to look you in the eye when they speak. Aila (Maria Heiskanen), the woman who cares about Koiskinen, who runs a refreshment stand in a vacant lot, he has little use for.
Kaurismäki's sequences of scenes are as bold and assured as they are ironic. This is a pessimistic, but curiously vibrant view of life. There was never a more willing dupe than Koiskinen. This film has the squirming life of a pool full of sharks devouring carp.
Laitakaupungin Valot, called Les lumières du faubourg or "suburban lights" in its French release and Lights in the Dusk in Canada, is in fact a coolly ironic reference to Charlie Chaplin's City Lights. It is a devastating finale to Kaurismäki's "Loser Trilogy," which began with Drifting Clouds and continued with A Man without a Past. This may be the best of the three. Its mood of twilight doom is unforgettable.
- Chris Knipp
- Nov 30, 2006