It's a little strange to single out three of Aki Kaurismäki's earliest films as his "proletariat trilogy"; that's akin to roping a few Alfred Hitchcock movies into a "suspense trilogy." The Finnish director has always made the outcast and downtrodden his people, and his eccentric, minimalist tragicomedies speak to their struggles and honor their dreams. Each film in the "proletariat trilogy," now collected under Criterion's stripped-down Eclipse line, takes a different tack (romantic comedy, deadpan crime drama, revenge), but all are committed to showing how the working poor scrape together a living on factory lines, in trash pickups, and the odd port job.
Kaurismäki's third film, 1986's Shadows In Paradise, created a solid prototype for many projects to follow—a short, bleak, yet oddly hopeful and sweet-natured tale that incorporates a soundtrack loaded with vintage American blues, Finnish pop music, and jukebox rock 'n' roll. Matti Pellonpää and Kati Outinen, who would become Kaurismäki regulars, star as a garbage man and a grocery-store cashier whose tentative relationship plays out in bingo parlors and ramshackle Helsinki apartments. Kaurismäki doesn't get too ambitious, but one exchange neatly encapsulates his sensibility: "I'm not going to die behind the wheel," says a garbage man with entrepreneurial vision. "Then where?" Pellonpää asks. "Behind a desk," he replies.
The other two films in the trilogy find characters actively rebelling against their miserable lot in life, and they're much stronger for it. 1988's Ariel begins with Turo Pajala quitting his coal-mining job, closing his bank account, and hitting the road in a top-down convertible in the dead of winter. When thieves knock him out and steal his money, the film shifts into a wry take on neo-noir, albeit one leavened by a sweet relationship between Pajala and a disgruntled meter maid. (The pair commit to each other forever via a post-coital handshake before they even introduce themselves.) Better still is 1990's The Match Factory Girl, which again stars Outinen as an utterly lonely, miserable assembly-line worker who absorbs horrible abuses from her parents and from a one-night stand who cruelly dismisses her. Her chilling response has the elemental power of Medea, and Kaurismäki's purposeful direction smartly drains the film of any color or mirth. It's a grim punctuation to the trilogy, following the hopeful spirit of the earlier films with a bitter chaser.
Key features: None.