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This is a sweet, lightly intoxicating thing like a small glass of calvados under the wisteria in the evening. Kaurismaki has aged and his outcast and misfit characters aged with him, the quirks mellowed, the ferocious smoking toned down, the lines in the sometimes quietly astonished stone faces deeper, wearier, but imbued with almost ascetic serenity.
Some viewers have complained, why trivialize an actual problem in the manner of a fairy tale? A fair complaint for a problem perhaps more pressing than ever, especially in France and especially these days, with Sarkozi's desperate attempt to shore up votes for what looks like near-certain defeat in the upcoming elections by reverting to reactionary rhetorics from the far-right.
No, I believe the fairy-tale is the point. The idyllic neighborhood. The mannered caricatures of French people, with even the poorest having the time and fine sense of taste to leisurely enjoy their freshly baked baguette or glass of wine. The miraculous turn of events, explicitly acknowledged in the finale where kindness of this world is so overwhelming it even cures sickness. How could anyone miss this?
But a certain emptiness has always been of the essence for Kaurismaki, deliberate, designed emptiness.
The world is always flat to that effect, two-dimensional. The characters lack any conventional depth to speak of and do not really grow or learn lessons. By contrast, the plots of the films often exhibit a life of spontaneous motion, the objectives intentionally abstract, journeys across town, to America, in search of coffee and cigarettes. Motion for the sheer musical capacity of life to fill the quiet, the room in the heart to do so.
So it is always a variation of transient worlds centered in the stillness of the present moment that Kaurismaki has studied and consistently delivered. What is so remarkable is that he achieves this without any layering whatsoever, as a single flow.
This is his most Japanese film to date, even more concentrated flow than usual. Which is to say artificial nature that does not attempt to pass for the real thing but instead is empty space cultivated for beauty, a road-map for inner heart.
(I saw this together with the recent viral video KONY2012 and the contrast was amazing: that one, shameless artifice passing as nature, as truth, the real thing, contriving to motivate awareness several years after the fact and by selling merchandise, but was in truth both misinformed and morally dubious and even perhaps unwittingly manipulated agitprop in the service of shady foreign policy, while this one is simple, crisp, gracefully moral work, that does create awareness without any agendas.)
So it is very much the point that no one in the film is shown to wallow in misery, and most of the characters we meet would have plenty of reason to do so. Instead they enjoy this drink or meal together, whatever is at hand. And act with no complaint in the present moment to do what needs to be done. There is no meddlesome thought or proud ego to cloud the mind from the day's work, be it polishing shoes or helping out an immigrant kid.
This is the beauty of the thing: an idyll embedded with the purity of soul that gives rise to it and clear images only possible because of this cloudless eye.
The parting image is of a blossomed cherry tree gently rocking in the breeze, among the most traditionally Japanese images.
It encapsulates motion in stillness. The song of Zen.
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