‘Found In Translation’ – 2008 by Wendy McCredie
A second full length review written for Montage Film and published during September 2008.
The Liar/Valehtelija (1981) is the first film from one of Finland’s best known directors, Mika Kaurismäki, better known to English speaking audiences as the director of LA Without A Map (1998). Co-written and starring Kaurismäki’s brother Aki, the film follows the tragic-comic antics of a charming, intellectual, pathological liar, as he drifts around Helsinki in search of love, enlightenment and a free ride. At just over fifty minutes in duration, this long short film was Kaurismäki’s film school graduation piece, and is a remarkably accomplished piece despite having a cast and crew of amateurs. This does in fact work in the film’s favour, fitting well with the nouvelle vague sensibilities that permeate the production. The cast and crew of the film going on to form the ‘Villealfa’ production family which would kick start a whole new era in Finnish film production. As part of a national cinema mainly ignored by the rest of the world, The Liar is an effective portrait of why Finnish cinema can be every bit as powerful as that produced by its Scandinavian neighbours.
Academic studies and overviews of Finnish cinema are few and far between, equally ignored by works on Scandinavian and Eastern European cinema, the casual reader could be forgiven for assuming that there was no such thing as Finnish national cinema. Yet given that the release of The Liar had enough impact to start a new era of Finnish cinema the significance of what went before cannot be ignored. Primarily, in attempting to understand the cinematic history of Finland, it is essential to remember that Finland is unlike the rest of Europe. In regards to language and cultural they stand apart from their Scandinavian and Slavic neighbours. Despite enjoying success both at home and abroad during the silent era, the audience for Finnish cinema dwindled first with the coming of sound and then further with the advent of television. Being culturally and linguistically distinct and, arguably, insular, films made to appeal to as much of its small and mainly rural population as possible did not manage to also appeal to international audiences. Akin to the cinema industry in Sweden and Denmark, Finnish cinema alternates between the decidedly provincial and moments of transcendent greatness. Unlike the former pair though, Finland has lacked an internationally renowned figurehead, a Bergman or Dryer or Von Trier, to draw the attention of the international cinema going public to the work of their peers. While Kaurismäki has gained considerable international acclaim in recent years, he is better known for his English and particularly his Portuguese language films, while his earlier work in Finnish is largely forgotten, the quality of the work an exception rather than the rule. Kaurismäki himself has admitted that it would have been far easier for him to work in Germany, yet he chose to make the film in Finland and found a collection of collaborators with which to revolutionise film-making in Finland for the best part of a decade. The Villealfa ‘family’ became synonymous with independent and daring cinema, in an industry that by its own Film Board’s admission was barely profitable even for those working within the system. At the height of their success, during the eighties, Villealfa Filmproductions was the third biggest film production company in Finnish cinema history.
The clearest sign that ties the film to its geographic location is in terms of light and sound. That strange quality of light that defines all cinema filmed that far north gives the film a distinct look unlike that made anywhere else in the world. The sparseness of the population ensures the streets and open spaces are quiet in a manner that doesn’t seem artificial. Oft times, sound falls away till all we have are the small sounds of Ville’s movements, in these moments he is always alone and silent. Clearly discomfited by silence he constantly seeks to fill it up, whether with the clatter of typewriter keys, impromptu musical interludes or the constant stream of tall tales and outright lies that spew from his lips. The city of The Liar cannot be the refuge for Ville that he seeks, he cannot hide from those he wishes to avoid, and his lies keep catching him up. He reminisces fondly about a trip to Paris, which given his nature may be entirely fabricated, and he clearly longs to disappear into that mass of people. Not even in the noise and press of the nightclub can he lose himself properly, moving awkwardly among the dancers. At one point during the film Ville walks across the open space of a car park, the audience views him from a high vantage point, there is only him and a gull in the shot and the gull is all we hear. No traffic, no people, nothing but the sound of the gull and the sight of him walking away alone. The moment typifies how out of place the character is; yet his eventual fate will be one more typical of a big city inhabitant. The language used within the film, especially by the central character, is a combination of the more literary language common to most Finnish cinema and the more casual spoken language, this amalgam of their creating fits neatly with the character, so much of a fake yet always with his pseudo-intellectual pretensions. The importance of the dialogue to the film, as emphasised by its director, adds to the bittersweet nature of the film. There is a decidedly comic-tragic element to the film itself, yet it was designed as a far more clear cut comedy but most of its clear-cut comic effect is lost in the translation of that, ever so carefully evolved dialogue.
Perhaps more obviously significant than this history in the case of The Liar, is the influence the French Nouvelle Vague cinema movement. The film wears its artistic credentials on its sleeve, affectionately referencing the works of Sergei Eisenstein, Jean-Luc Goddard and Ernest Hemingway. Both the film’s central character and the production company they founded shortly afterwards (which by the end of the 80s would have become the home of fresh, low-budget film-making) make an affectionate reference to Goddard’s Alphaville (1965). Even leaving aside the verbal and plot references to classic nouvelle vague pieces, the black and white imagery, cast and crew of amateurs, use of improvisation (albeit within the structure of an outline script) real locations rather than studio sets, the use of ambient light, the loose yet complex narrative and presence of unexplained characters (some of the characters listed only as ‘Friend of Hemmingway’ and the like) all mark the film out as aspiring to be part of another filmic tradition. Even Ville’s motivations follow the established pattern, his actions are every bit as much part accident, part intention as the creative flow of many of the films that clearly inspire him. In contrast to the established practice of many nouvelle vague ‘classics’ where the female characters are often foreign with their linguistic differences used to create dissonance, Ville’s sometime girlfriend Tuula (Pirkko Hämäläinen) as a drama student was the nearest the cast had to a ‘professional’ cast member. Her introductory scene makes a neat nod to Truffaut’s work on deconstructing the fetishisation of the feminine form in film and all its impotence in the face of the increasingly explicit and exploitive nature of film in general. Firstly by having her ‘rescued’ by Ville from her workplace (in a fairground where people throw balls at targets to knock pretty, scantily clad girls from platforms as though they were cuddly toys) and to immediately follow this rescue up with his attempts to control her, playing alpha male promising to take care of her. The self-awareness of nouvelle vague cinema, and its ultimate failure in creating any permanent change in cinema is reflected in the film. Ville and his friends spend much of the film discussing literature and philosophising, and a large part of the rest of it drowning in alcohol. For all his big and lofty dreams, they cannot stop him spiralling into self-destruction. It serves as an appealing metaphor for the film’s themes, and worryingly foreshadows the eventual fading and dissembling of their own cinematic revolution. Yet ultimately the most important element of similarity is the desire to create something self-consciously different to the mainstream or normal filmmaking of their time, all but overturning what had come before in the eyes of the audience.
If A Bout de Souffle (1960) was Goddard’s calling card to show the world how the nouvelle vague movement was going to turn around our understanding of film history and of where film could go in the future, then Valehtelija is the Kaurismäki brothers laying out the agenda for the transformation of Finnish cinema they were about to effect. Taking their cue from the films so affectionately referenced, the film lays out its cards as a watershed before the overthrow of the old and flowering of the new and vibrant that was to follow in the decade to come. By making this poetic, almost love letter to film, in one of the most obscure and impenetrable of European languages, they demonstrate just how irrelevant language is to the creation of good cinema.