Ariel (1988)

Directed by Aki Kaurismäki

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The “Ariel” is a large ship to which Taisto will flee after he escapes from prison.  It represents the only freedom for a man who has spent his whole life trapped.  Accompanying him will be Irmeli and her young son, willing participants whose eagerness to escape suggests more about the poor quality of their lives than any sensational attraction to Taisto.

You get the feeling that there is nothing special about Taisto or anyone else within this movie.  They are all emotionless but still sad characters who struggle to make ends meet and seem to be paying the price for the same crime.  They are characters who suffer because that’s what the world calls for, and the only thing that makes them stand out is that they have any power left to yearn.

Taisto works with his hands.  We follow him around for a short while at a factory before his father sits him down and explains his peace before unceremoniously committing suicide.  The only apparent significance of Taisto’s father’s death is the convertible he bequeaths to him.

The flashy convertible attracts two criminals who knock Taisto unconscious and rob him.  Later it will attract the eyes of a meter maid, Irmeli, with whom Taisto immediately starts a relationship.

The convertible is like a beacon for predators.  Everyone in the world of this film is out to survive, turning them into starving wolves and the car into a plump moose (do wolves eat moose?).  It brings Taisto only trouble, but it will ultimately help facilitate his escape.

So Taisto loses his father and then moves silently to a new town where he has to hustle to find work on the docks.  Irmeli is in much the same position, and their struggle is shared, at least until Taisto goes to prison for defending himself in a fight with another man.

In prison he meets Mikkonen, and together they hatch an escape plan.  It all goes off relatively seamlessly, but a bad bet with some shady figures gets Mikkonen killed.  In the end Taisto collects Irmeli and her son, and they prepare to board the Ariel to Mexico to start their new life.  They hop onboard out of necessity, but I get the feeling they were looking for quite sometime for any excuse to jump town.

The worlds of this movie and another Kaurismäki film, The Match Factory Girl, are desolate to say the least.  The characters are stoic, emotionless, stationary and unable to express what’s on their mind.  They are sad robots, and the protagonists of the two films suffer because they dare to yearn, though we only know this by their actions, not by how they conduct themselves.

I touched on it in a recent write up of The Match Factory Girl, but Kaurismäki owes much of this to Robert Bresson.  His films are quiet, unsentimental and somewhere between funny and tragic.  The characters of those films and of this one are shells of what they might’ve once been, but their plight is portrayed in a peculiar, amusing manner.

The logic of certain moments don’t add up, but they have in common a commitment to showing the absurdity of the characters’ life, circumstances and surely people as a whole.  Like in Bresson’s L’Argent, the character’s eventual incarceration is so sudden it’s almost funny, but it does follow a strange kind of internal logic.  The same can be said here when the fight that lands Taisto in jail seems to come completely out of the blue.  Similarly his escape plan comes together quickly, and before you know it they’re walking free.

This story feels silent, but a lot happens.  It’s because of the character’s muted reactions to the movie’s events that I think it seems as though little happens.  You might forget about his father’s suicide or the assault that knocks him unconscious.  Taisto just keeps on keeping on, and this turns a potential rushing river into a coy pond.

So the characters are sad, but they probably don’t even know it.  They seem to react to their immediate circumstances, completely unable to glimpse the bigger picture or even see five feet in front of them.  They are people in a dense fog who keep bumping into brick walls without learning from the previous brick wall.  They are Sideshow Bob stepping repeatedly on rakes which smack him in the face.

So Taisto and company have a poor short term memory, both practically and spiritually.  If he was able to recall the events that the audience has seen, he might be better prepared to handle the future or completely inconsolable.  As it is he isn’t, and he’s not.

Up Next: Mississippi Burning (1988), Pickup on South Street (1953), Beginners (2010)

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