Sunday, 8 April 2018

Crime and Punishment

A note on a film: Crime and Punishment (1983)

In a particularly impressive stroke, Kaurismäki's film - his first as director - begins with a scene taking place in some anonymous Helsinki slaughter house. In close-up, an insect crawls across a blood-splattered plinth. Almost immediately, a cleaver comes down and cuts the bug in two. Ominous music begins to overwhelm the soundtrack as we're subjected to an onslaught of emotionless, repetitive slaughter; a montage of drab, impassive young men in overalls cleaning meat from bone, sawing through sinew and hosing down pools of blood collected under a procession of strung-up animal carcasses.

This first scene introduces us to our central character, Rahikainen; a former lawyer turned butcher, still haunted by the loss of his young fiancé some several years before. However, it also introduces us to the theme of murder, central to both Kaurismäki's film, and the 1866 novel by Dostoevsky on which it is based. More specifically, it introduces us to the idea of murder as somehow existing to sustain balance; the order of murder, as it moves down the chain, from human, to animal, to insect, etc. It also introduces us to Kaurismäki's characteristically ironic and deadpan sense of humour; as he illustrates, in mundane miniature, the very essence of what the film - and, by extension, its esteemed source material - is effectively about.

Like the novel, Kaurismäki's modernised interpretation of Dostoevsky focuses on the attempts made by its central character to kill a principle. Not a specific person or target, but a concept; an ideology. Rahikainen's eventual murder of a seemingly anonymous businessman at first seems divorced from the more conventional justifications we might associate with the crime; such as vengeance and retribution. It doesn't seem motivated by anger or hatred, but instead seems an almost philosophical or moral provocation; an attempt to challenge the societal or evolutionary order of things, as the character sees it.

In this respect, the film predicts certain elements from Krzysztof Kieaelowski's startling Dekalog-spin off, A Short Film About Killing (1988), which probably owes some of its own influence to the work of Dostoevsky. Both films focus on young men cast adrift and unable to connect to a society that seems both cold and colourless, while both films share a thematic preoccupation with the correlation between crime and punishment itself.

Crime and Punishment [Aki Kaurismäki, 1983]:

A Short Film About Killing [Krzysztof Kieaelowski, 1988]:

The similarity feels obvious from the start. While Kaurismäki begins his film in a fully-functioning slaughter house, Kieaelowski famously begins his own film with the image of a dead cat hung from a railing (further accompanied by the sound of children running away in fits of mischievous laughter). Both films evoke the crime of murder, first in miniature, and as a precursor to later events, and both use these crimes against non-human entities to exemplify the loveless nature of the society that these characters are caught up in (Kieaelowski and his screenwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz go one further by predicting the method of execution that will eventually be favoured by the state; turning their first image into both a personal and political foreshadowing.)

Similarly, the world created by both filmmakers is ugly and dehumanising. Kieaelowski and his cinematographer Sławomir Idziak favour grotesque colour filters that plunge areas of the frame into total darkness, while saturating the remaining image in a wash of green and yellow hues. Conversely, Kaurismäki favours heightened minimalism. His framing is flat and perfunctory, with shots and inserts used sparingly to provide illustration. He focuses on naturalistic location shooting to present an inherent drabness, or dreariness, that seems to suggest something about his protagonist; his lack of prospects and direction; the void of hope.

A Short Film About Killing [Krzysztof Kieaelowski, 1988]:

Crime and Punishment [Aki Kaurismäki, 1983]:

There's also something of Robert Bresson to Kaurismäki's particular aesthetic; not just here, but as it would subsequently develop through his later, better films; such as Ariel (1988), Drifting Clouds (1996) and The Man Without a Past (2002). The presentational nature of the imagery, the use of insert shots, the pace of the editing and the very flat, mannered, almost emotionless delivery of the actors, can't help but evoke Bresson's legacy of works, from Pickpocket (1959) through to L'argent (1983). Pickpocket specifically is said to have been inspired, in-part, by Dostoevsky, and the ending of that particular film is appropriately echoed here.

Pickpocket [Robert Bresson, 1959]:

Crime and Punishment [Aki Kaurismäki, 1983]:

At the end of Pickpocket, the character Michel - the titular thief - finds a kind of spiritual transcendence through incarceration. In this sense, Bresson's film probably has a touch the "existential" about it, as the character intentionally sets in motion a chain of events that will see about his own personal downfall, or a kind of punishment for some perceived weakness or failure. This, as a conception, recalls Dostoevsky, but it also evokes some of the ideas found in Jean-Paul Sartre's Being and Nothingness (published 1943) and the predicament of the character Meursault in Albert Camus's The Stranger (published 1942). Here the notion that "existence precedes essence", and the idea of a character committing a crime as almost primal scream (as well as an attempt to re-establish some kind of emotional balance within his own personal universe) seems to inform the philosophy of Bresson, and by extension, the philosophy of the film in question.   

As a debut, Crime and Punishment lacks much of the nuance and personality that would become characteristic of Kaurismäki's later cinema; which would really come into its own with the release of his third feature, Shadows in Paradise (1986). Subsequent works would take a similar approach to the one seen here, incorporating the same influence of Bresson and the milieu of socio-economic hardship as a backdrop to a more conventional filmic narrative, but would punctuate the deadpan humour and the mannered performance style with a sensitivity seemingly plucked from the quiet melodramas of Yasujirō Ozu (note the appearance of the red kettle in one of the screen captures featured above as an early nod to Ozu's cinema.)

Nonetheless, the film still provides a fascinating insight into Kaurismäki's early approach, his creative vision, and his particularly sardonic sense of ambition (a cavalier approach to adapting literary classics that would eventually carry through to his later, similarly modern and satirical adaptations of Shakespeare - Hamlet Goes Business, 1987 - and Henri Murger - La Vie de Bohème, 1992 - respectively). Crime and Punishment is a film very much worth experiencing, both in its own right, and as a way of introducing the rough essence of what an Aki Kaurismäki film is before approaching his subsequent, more interesting endeavours, such as those aforementioned.