The Finns in Aki Kaurismäki‘s movies are a dour lot: they rarely smile, never say more than what’s absolutely necessary, and even when they want to signify agreement, they confine themselves to a single, decisive nod of the head. When heartbroken (and they are usually heartbroken), they sit alone drinking vodka and listen to maudlin folks songs until they pass out with burning cigarettes dangling from their lips. After Drifting Clouds and The Man Without a Past, Lights in the Dusk, an official selection at last year’s Cannes festival, completes the “Loser Trilogy” — but then again, as far back as Ariel (1988) and The Match Factory Girl (1990), Kaurismäki’s films have always been concerned with the unlikely redemption of sad underachievers at the edges of society.

Koistinen (Janne Hyytiäinen) is a typical Kaurismäki hero. A security guard working night shifts in a particularly desolate neighborhood of Helsinki, he is routinely snubbed and ridiculed by his co-workers. The only person who will talk to him is sausage vendor Aila (Maria Heiskanen.) We don’t see him laugh or crack a smile until a solid hour into the movie. Kind Koistinen stoically accepts beatings from neglectful dog owners, and like the nameless Man Without a Past, he becomes the victim of a crime. In that film, a good samaritan helped with his recovery, but here, it is a cold-hearted dame (Maria Järvenhelmi) who gets the lonesome hero into trouble.

With his trademark understatement and a pleasing palette composed of cold blue hues with red highlights, Kaurismäki once again hints at oceans of emotion underneath the minimalist surface. The miracle of his films is that the laconic tone never becomes depressing, and the glimmers of hope and humor found in the misery are all the more radiant for it. The villain of Lights in the Dusk proudly proclaims that he takes everything to its logical conclusion, and so Kaurismäki doesn’t have to. Instead, he ends the film with a lovely image that is reward enough. Lights in the Dusk opens at the IFC Center on June 13; other cities will follow.

Laitakaupungin valot. Aki Kaurismäki, 2006. ****

  • By pure coincidence, most of my family is currently in Finland, where my cousin Elina is celebrating her high school graduation. I’m sad I couldn’t be there to pass out with burning cigarettes dangling from my lips, so instead, the Internet will have to do. Congratulations, Elina!
  • A scene from Lights in the Dusk: