Henri Murger’s short stories collected under the title La vie de bohème, have had quite a run of things since the first of them was published in 1845. It was soon developed into a play, then into an opera (which became the basis for the Broadway musical Rent), and thirteen films even before Aki Kaurismäki made the one with which we will be concerning ourselves today. The point I’m making is that Murger’s subject, the lives of and interactions poor artists in an urban setting, has fascinated audiences for nearly two hundred years, even as those who actually live in such a way get dismissed as hippies, hipsters, layabouts, and freeloaders; sometimes even communists! Hell of a dichotomy.
However, this regressive mindset has allowed the story to remain continually, internationally relevant, so Kaurismäki can make a film that is entirely potent and relevant to the early 90s without abandoning much of Murger’s original intent and general tone. It only tips its hand to its contemporary setting a handful of times (most notably when the characters attend a punk rock show), pointing to the seeming eternity of a certain type of lifestyle. Each of the three protagonists’ occupations – painter, writer, composer – have existed for centuries. They move from gig to gig, sale to sale, commission to commission, helping one another out on the way, meeting various women, falling in love, getting left, hanging on for dear life even when things are looking pretty good. They pawn their possessions, steal a suit jacket here and there, dodge landlords, gaze longingly inside restaurant windows, and sacrifice everything in the name of art.
Yet Kaurismäki, like the source he is adapting (the collected stories were formed into a novel that can be got for free from Amazon in both English and French), does not dwell exclusively on the misery, allowing that element to speak entirely for itself. One needn’t be repeatedly told of the pains of hunger, the uncertainty of not being able to pay one’s rent, or the bitterness of winter when the furnace cannot be lit, so long as one has a beating heart and a pittance of empathy. Better, then, to consider the random providence that allows one to continue, the small signposts of success – a client here, a job there, a bit of praise even – that make it mentally possible to sustain such a life as this. Kaurismäki is not exceedingly romantic in his portrait, but genially amused, forever in admiration and quiet fascination with the way they bounce from circumstance to circumstance, certain only that another circumstance will reveal itself.
The film was photographed really marvelously in black and white, and looks incredible on Criterion’s new Blu-ray edition. Detail is outstanding, contrast is strong without being overbearing, and the source print exhibits just enough in the way of damage and grain to give it a tremendous amount of texture. The special features are hugely supportive of the film, especially “Where is Musette?”, an hour-long behind-the-scenes look, showing how international Kaurismäki’s team of collaborators are, and how small the production truly is overall. It’s also very cool to see the scenes in color, how theatrical the lighting and set decoration are to produce such vivid imagery. Very cool stuff. There’s also a new interview with André Wilms, who plays the writer, and the booklet has a characteristically stellar essay by Luc Sante. I highly recommend the release overall; the film is outstanding, and beautifully presented, and while the supplements are light, they’re quite illuminative. A DVD version of the release, duplicating the supplements, is also included.