The experience of watching “La Vie de Bohème” raises one big question: “Why am I giggling?” Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismäki’s sense of humor is always a bit strange. Why do we find his assorted po-faced gags and awkwardly stoic social interactions so funny? Very specifically, what triggers it? Books have been written about the many different reasons we laugh, the best one probably being Milan Kundera’s “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.” In some cases, he suggests, laughter is even angelic. It can bring us closer to God, reminiscent of the way Renaissance Italian poets addressed love.
Kaurismäki, whose sense of humor is somewhat inscrutable and always deadpan, sits somewhere between the divine smile and the wry anger of the revolutionary. That last bit sounds like a contradiction, but it is no such thing. From working class revenge comedy (“The Match Factory Girl”) to more mysterious missing identity mystery (“The Man Without a Past”), humor is a route to a kind of secular, proletarian state of grace. Which brings us back to “La Vie de Bohème.”
The film is an adaptation of Henri Murger’s classic novel of the same title, published in 1851. It’s the story of three creative types trying to survive in Paris: Marcel the writer (André Wilms), Rodolfo the painter (Matti Pellonpää) and Schaunard the composer (Kari Väänänen). If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s also the source material for Giacomo Puccini’s “La Bohème” and the subsequent rock-opera adaptation, “Rent.” Kaurismäki’s film version is very faithful to the plot, but otherwise shares very little of its tone with the more popular stage adaptations of the book.
Actually, the unadorned humor of “La Vie de Bohème” becomes even more interesting when one realizes that this style is essentially the polar opposite of opera. Puccini’s work takes every statement of love or despair and lets it rise to the heavens on sweeping melodies, atop an orchestra brimming with feeling. Kaurismäki’s entire cast speaks with as little expression as possible, sharing their feelings as if they were impossibly accurate weather reports. The only scenes of real sentimentality are without dialog altogether, rare silent odes to love that are accompanied by almost synthetic music. One of them is entirely focused on the love shared by Rodolfo and his dog, Baudelaire.
In the place of broad sentiment is humor, some of which is actually quite absurd. The word “deadpan” is grossly inadequate to the nuance of this style, though it’s in the right direction. In the first love scene between Rodolfo and Mimi, he tells her he’s going to kiss her on the cheek with about as much romance in his voice as brusque, Finnish Siri, and then promptly plants one right on her lips. This is right after the film’s nod to the same scene in Puccini, in which the two lovers search for a lost match. Here the flame is in the kitchen, as Rodolfo looks for the coffee that was ostensibly the reason that Mimi has come up to his apartment. “I’m out of coffee,” he realizes, “but I will make a soup.”
It is difficult to describe a comedy so small, so unglamorous. In part this is because it’s more of an anti-comedy, laughter created not through absurd performance but through the absence of such. It also has a leveling effect, on all of the different tones contained in a single story. This is particularly interesting in “La Vie de Bohème,” with its narrative of ups and downs. The three central artists rise and fall quite abruptly, in the expected trials and tribulations of the “Bohemian” lifestyle. The constant blunt humor compresses this. Times of triumph and times of poverty are both treated with the same degree of hilariously muted nonchalance, and at the end of the film it feels as if we’ve just been transported back to the beginning. Puccini achieves this with returning musical cues designed to make you weep. Kaurismäki does it with considerably less obvious effort.
Of course, this is not to say that you won’t be crying at the end of “La Vie de Bohème,” it will just be for different reasons. The beauty of Kaurismäki’s anti-humor is that while it never endorses emotionality directly, it also never takes it away. This strange balance is also true of his most recent feature, “Le Havre,” which is a sequel of sorts to “La Vie de Bohème.” André Wilms reprises his role as Marcel, though none of the other characters have carried over.
Both films have a quiet sense of humor, one that isn’t quite as bold as some of the director’s “Proletariat Trilogy.” Perhaps this is because these are his only two films made in French. Regardless, they share a unique place not only in his filmography but in the larger story of laughter in cinema. There are many, many ways to make us laugh. Few of them have the nuanced, beautiful glow of a Kaurismäki comedy.