I was somewhat trepidatious about finally diving into an Aki Kaurismäki movie last night as I’d heard his humour was particularly deadpan and dry, my fear being it would be so dry as to be practically desiccated resulting in a subdued, if hopefully interesting, viewing experience. The good news is that although Kaurismäki’s humour is understated (going by his 1987 ‘Hamlet Goes Business’ at least) it’s also incredibly funny and, very often, anything but subdued. There’s understatement for sure but there’s also a hell of a lot going on here.
‘Hamlet Goes Business’ is, simply, a version of the tale of Shakespeare’s Dane set in the world of the Finnish rubber-duck industry and shot as a B-movie film noir. This allows Kaurismäki too playfully (and you can tell he’s having a lot of fun here) play-off various cinematic conventions against each other along with the absurdity of Hamlet’s new situation. A great example is Hamlet’s famous soliloquy of lament which Kaurismäki shoots in a smoky bar like a noir, strips Hamlet’s eloquence completely away reducing his speech to simple announcement that he wants to puke whilst a rockabilly band thrashes out deafening music on stage. So there’s the fun in seeing Shakespeare subverted, noir parodied and pastiched and, despite the deadpan delivery of it all, the raucous music giving it all the energetic kick everything needs.
Indeed, Kaurismäki’s use of music is one of his secret weapons. Many aspects of ‘Hamlet Goes Business’ could be considered to be deliberately restrained (often ironically so) but his use of music is anything but, often bursting into the film with the look-at-me flourish of an attention seeking drama-queen, sometimes by means of a kicked jukebox, sometimes from a radio to the head. The scene when Hamlet takes his mother and Klaus to the theatre demonstrates Kaurismäki’s sly and deftly humourous use of the soundtrack brilliantly. Hamlet pays the theatre director to insert a scene dramatising the murder of his father by his mother and her lover into that night’s performance. He gives precise instructions as to how the actors should execute it. The scene, when it comes, is just randomly inserted, barges in hard-cut style, into the banal light drama on stage and is performed by the actors in the manner of a silent movie, wordless gestures illustrating the crime. Yet the music is full-blown histrionics, completely over-exaggerating the unspoken emotions. This mix of delightful incongruity, sonic excess and the playful (I can’t emphasise the word “playful” enough) undermining of cinematic conventions is a joy to behold and technically inspired.
Although it’s not just his ear that’s sophisticated but Kaurismäki’s eye too as ‘Hamlet Goes Business’ is crammed with cine-literate (why do I hate using that word?) gags, genre tropes as well as some extremely nice compositions, such as when Hamlet is reading a dossier whilst Rosencrantz and Guildenstern look on over his shoulder from behind glass dotted with the reflection of the lights of a ship. Kaurismäki certainly has a keen and stylish eye often indulging in flights of visual eloquence or pulling out some B-movie cliché to play about with. Yet his style never feels overwrought, laboured or striving for perfection. At one point the actor playing Ofelia briefly corpses whilst eating ice-cream because her scarf has flown into her mouth but Kaurismäki just lets the scene keep rolling along regardless. This gives a refreshing looseness to the film, a sensation that it is unencumbered from the angst of reaching for perfection.
If this is my first Kaurismäki film then I can’t wait to see more of his work. There is dryness here but it helps make the comedy even funnier when it comes. It’s blindingly obvious Kaurismäki knows cinema inside out and is a serious filmmaker… and I just love it when filmmakers don’t take cinema too seriously.