Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Hovering Over the Earth


Notes on a film: Calamari Union (1985)


Following on from the sombre, contemporary-set Dostoevsky adaptation, Crime and Punishment (1983), this second feature-length effort from Aki Kaurismäki already illustrates the filmmaker's eclectic range and singular ambition, as he graduates from the deadpan, 'Bressonian' hyper-realism of the previous film to embrace a looser, semi-improvised narrative, captured in a stark black and white.

Between the very different approaches of these first two films we begin to see a sort of pattern or template emerging for the films that would eventually follow. An indicator that Kaurismäki's subsequent career would alternate the low-key realism of films like Shadows in Paradise (1986), Ariel (1988) and The Match Factory Girl (1990), with more stylised, absurdist or even eccentric films, such as Hamlet Goes Business (1987), Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989) and La Vie de Bohème (1992).

Calamari Union definitely falls into the latter category, as its absurd, picaresque narrative follows the misadventures of fifteen men - fourteen of them named Frank, and an idiot man-child named Pekka - who one day decide to leave behind the hopeless working class backdrop of Eira and instead quest to the near-fabled district of Kallio (creating in the process a bizarre passage that turns the suburban boroughs of Helsinki into an almost mythological terrain).


Calamari Union [Aki Kaurismäki, 1985]:

It's not necessarily a film to be taken seriously, as Kaurismäki follows his characters on this meandering journey - finding strange scenes, slapstick humour and at least one rock & roll performance - but it's not to say that the film can't be looked at or appreciated on a deeper, more personal level.

For me, there's a definite air of Buñuel here - both in terms of the plot and in some of the more satirical elements (as the characters become a warped prism through which the filmmaker can exaggerate the various foibles of man) - as well as something reminiscent of Bertrand Blier's fantastic film, Buffet froid (1979). Like Calamari Union, Buffet froid - or Cold Cuts - spins an episodic tale of listless, damaged men caught up in a strange and often benignly surreal adventure, with deeper shades of bleak existentialism punctuating the surface farce.

Both films have the same nocturnal quality, making great use of locations that seem empty, or devoid of life. The sense of the city sleeping becoming like a stage or even a playground in which these characters can enact their various narratives, both comic and tragic.


Buffet froid [Bertrand Blier, 1979]: 


Calamari Union [Aki Kaurismäki, 1985]:

Beginning with a quotation, "Dedicated to those ghosts of Baudelaire, Michaux and Prevert, who still hover over this Earth...", Calamari Union immediately finds a tone that's somewhere between parody and sincerity. It's also between the crushing realities of the 1980s - with its bleak prospects and lack of employment - and that typically French romanticism of men in long coats meeting in bars and cafes; attempting, in their own listless and world-weary way, to express the poetry of a different kind of despair.

The black and white cinematography of Timo Salminen plays into this same kind of language and iconography. It feels especially reminiscent of the films of the French New Wave, in its observational visual aesthetic, as well as in the presentation of the characters, their self-awareness and the non-specific subject matter (see also: Kaurismäki's production company at the time was called Villealfa; a nod to Jean-Luc Godard's post-modernist new wave classic, Alphaville, 1965).


Calamari Union [Aki Kaurismäki, 1985]:

More-so than any of his later films, it's difficult to really assume what Kaurismäki's intentions were with this strange Calamari Union. Was he simply trying to produce something that presented a surreal and sardonic experience that could be enjoyed without having to bring to it the same level of consideration needed for a film like Crime and Punishment, or is there a hidden depth to the film just waiting to be rediscovered and interpreted? While some audiences may see the film as a frivolous or even silly work - especially in light of the filmmaker's later, more humanist projects, such as his recent films Le Havre (2011) and The Other Side of Hope (2017) - I still find it somewhat fascinating, compelling and often bleakly funny.

If you wanted to bring a literal interpretation to the film, then Calamari Union could be seen as a representation of the cycle of life. The characters emerge from the womb - or, in this instance, their local pub - and travel by train through an underground tunnel into the wider world. Here they begin this strange journey into life (breaking away from the group - this surrogate family - meeting new people, forming relationships, making decisions, then eventually dropping dead).

You could also see the film as a treatise on the notion of individuality, with the earlier scenes showing the group to be very much a part of this single "union" - both anonymous to themselves and to the viewing audience - and each with the same shared goals and ambitions. Eventually, as they continue their odyssey of self-discovery, they find their own individual interests and directions through life, free of influence, and now able to form their own unique and distinctive personalities.