Henri Murger’s 1851 quasi-novel Scènes De La Vie De Bohème (Scenes From The Bohemian Life) has inspired a surprising number of other artists in various different media. The most famous, of course, is Puccini’s opera La Bohème, which would be transformed a century later into the hit Broadway musical Rent. But there have also been numerous film adaptations, dating all the way back to the silent era (one version starred John Gilbert and Lillian Gish), all of them besotted with Murger’s romanticized view of artistic poverty. Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki’s La Vie De Bohème (1992) is more sardonic than most, in keeping with his general temperament, and it remains one of his best known works, if not one of his best. (I’d plump for Ariel or The Match Factory Girl on that score.) The artwork on the cover of the new Criterion edition features the film’s three lead actors sitting together in a bar, smoking cigarettes and staring glumly at nothing in particular; the image captures the mood so precisely that actually watching the movie almost seems superfluous.
To the extent that La Vie De Bohème does have motion, it’s largely circular. Kaurismäki regular André Wilms plays Marcel, a Parisian writer in so little demand that he can’t even afford to pay the rent on his tiny, dingy apartment. After being evicted, he runs into an Albanian painter named Rodolfo (Matti Pellonpää, who appeared in almost every Kaurismäki film until his death in 1995 at age 44), who shares his disdain for material wealth; the two instantly form a fast friendship, jointly rejecting society’s stifling dictates. Unexpectedly, they find another ally in the fellow who’s moved into Marcel’s former digs: Schaunard (Kari Väänänen), an Irish composer whose method of playing the piano involves directly hitting the hammers as much as traditionally striking the keys (which he does with his forehead). One key subplot involves Rodolfo’s romance with a doleful French woman named Mimi (Evelyne Didi), which gets temporarily scuttled by his sudden deportation, but the movie’s primary subject is simply camaraderie in the face of voluntary hardship. C’est la vie, so to speak.
Most of Kaurismäki’s films amount to a series of deadpan blackout sketches, and La Vie De Bohème is no exception—nor should it be, really, since Murger’s novel is in fact a collection of loosely related short stories. In any case, the film’s narrative is less important than its texture, with the dialogue often subordinate to the peeling paint visible in the background. Kaurismäki is one of the few living directors who does equally stunning work in color and black-and-white; this is one of his monochrome pictures, and Criterion’s typically fine transfer makes it clear how much we’ve lost now that movies like Nebraska and Frances Ha are shot digitally (meaning that black-and-white is just a camera setting). Interiors, like André/Schaunard’s hole in the wall, are an evocative blend of deep shadow and silvery highlights, embodying the characters’ meager existence in a way that’s at once beautiful and forbidding. When Marcel and Rodolfo share a two-headed fish, the resulting shot of the symmetrical carcass on their plates is suitable for framing and hanging in a museum.
As thoroughly enjoyable as the milieu and performances are, however, there’s something fundamentally soft about La Vie De Bohème, which in certain respects plays to Kaurismäki’s greatest weakness: his sentimentality. While he’s plenty capable of facing grim facts—few movies are bleaker than The Match Factory Girl, available as part of Criterion’s Eclipse box set called Aki Kaurismäki’s Proletariat Trilogy—he’s also prone to utopian wish fulfillment, especially where collective poverty is concerned. This movie doesn’t get as rah-rah as Le Havre, his most recent feature, but its depiction of penury (one major character even dies) skews awfully idyllic; an air of self-congratulation hangs over the three protagonists, who clearly consider their suffering a noble sacrifice to their respective muses. While Kaurismäki has too much of a droll sense of humor not to puncture their offbeat complacency now and then, he identifies with them more than is perhaps healthy, artistically speaking. Still, at least nobody here is as insufferable as Mark in Rent.