Lights in the Dusk (Laitakaupungin valot) first published by Film4
Synopsis: In the final part of Finnish writer-director Aki Kaurismäki’s loser trilogy, a Helsinki night watchman is brought low by a treacherous dame and a venal society.
Review: Lights In The Dusk (Laitakaupungin valot) packs in a rock ‘n’ roll hero, a bar fight, gangsters, a femme fatale, a daring heist, courtroom drama, a year’s stint in prison, romance, revenge and the violent confrontation of good and evil into a running time just shy of 80 minutes. Yet it unfolds with such subdued understatement that at no point does there seem to be much happening at all. For this is a film by Aki Kaurismäki, Finland’s king of deadpan miserabilism, whose minimalist sensibilities ensure that all the emotional turmoil remains beneath the surface and all the action is kept off the screen.
Following Drifting Clouds (1996) and The Man Without A Past (2002), Lights In The Dusk is the third in the so-called ‘loser trilogy’ of films loosely bound by their shared concern with misfits, deadbeats and outcasts. In fact, this has been Kaurismäki’s constant preoccupation since he began directing in the early 1980s; Lights In The Dusk, with its hangdog protagonist imprisoned for a crime he did not commit, has as much in common with Ariel (1988) as with its immediate predecessors in the series.
A dog-loving guard who hopes in vain to start up his own security company, Koistinen (Janne Hyytiäinen) truly is a loser, constantly picking fights he cannot possibly win, treated with disdain by his employers and colleagues, dismissed offhand by those in authority, and utterly alone – apart from the sausage seller Aila (Maria Heiskanen) whose quiet friendship he barely notices.
Koistinen’s modest dreams already seem doomed to fail, when he meets and falls for blonde bombshell Mirja (Maria Järvenhelmi), little realising that she is the honeytrap in a robbery plot orchestrated by the gangster Lindstrom (Ilkka Koivula), who has recognised that Koistinen’s unquestioning loyalty and complete lack of guile make him the perfect fall guy.
“All cities are the same”, Mirja informs Lindstrom – and indeed, while it is the peculiar shifting lights of Helsinki that form the film’s backdrop (and provide its title), this tale of an individual brought low by heartless modernity might have been set in any contemporary metropolis.
With his grand ideals and retro quiff, Koistinen is never going to fit into a world of wine bars, chain stores and endless commerce – and his antagonist Lindstrom embodies the exploitative malevolence of our globalised age. By the end all that is left to our hero, bruised and bloody, is his dogged optimism. But that, Kaurismäki suggests on a perfectly pitched note of sombre sentimentality, may just see Koistinen through the approaching darkness.
Beautifully composed, irresistibly cool, and showcasing some of the most stony-faced performances this side of Jim Jarmusch, Lights In The Dusk would be unbearably depressing were it not so absurdly funny – and despite the film’s apparent lack of an emotive pulse, the strangely hopeful coda is just enough to warm any viewer’s heart.
In a Nutshell: Kaurismäki’s underdog tragicomedy is an elegant piece of modern urban noir.
© Anton Bitel