THE BEST EVER ROAD MOVIE

The next post will be on or before Sunday 7th January. Happy New Year to all…

THE BEST EVER ROAD MOVIE

Take Care of Your Scarf, Tatiana (1994) by the acclaimed Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki (born 1957) is a road movie like no other. Kaurismaki’s trademark is low key, blackly comic deadpan cinema, usually set among the inarticulate and alienated underclass of Helsinki: dustmen, factory worker women, homeless derelicts living in industrial containers, as well as violent street criminals and their startlingly amoral bosses. Kaurismaki’s influences are reckoned to be Jean-Pierre Melville, Bresson, Yasujiro Ozu and just possibly Fassbinder. To my mind he is also intelligible as a kind of Finnish Mike Leigh with more than a hint of Samuel Beckett, who of course was a specialist in silence and bleakly comic anticlimax. Kaurismaki has a fondness for rock and roll soundtracks, and as fertile offshoot to this are his successful English language movies about the cosmopolitan rock band The Leningrad Cowboys, a bunch of eccentric groovers in stiff black suits all with gelled hair quiffs about a foot long. Mato Valtonen (born 1955) is one of the Cowboys, and he also wrote the film scripts, and he stars here in Tatiana in a rather less glamorous role as Valto, a wordless and smileless homeworking tailor (I don’t think there is a masculine version of sempstress). Valto spends all day at his sewing machine, and lives with his stern Mum who typically slaps his face when he pinches her cigarette. As well as chainsmoking, he is also a 5-star coffee addict and glugs cup after cup. Coffee is his only requirement from his Mum and the day they run out and she refuses to go and buy more he is so incensed he sticks her in a cupboard, locks the door and departs for the Post Office on an urgent quest. He also takes all of her money with him.

His PO parcel contains a primitive looking gadget for making coffee inside a car, and his next port of call is the garage where his Russian Volga jalopy is being fixed by an exceedingly shifty mechanic called Reino. Reino is played to perfection by Matti Pelonpaa who tragically died of a heart attack aged only 44 in 1995. Pelonpaa who also worked with Jim Jarmusch, is a Kaurismaki staple and with his thick moustache, greased hair and trademark bleak expression, he is an underdog to outdo all others (significantly, as a film actor he refused to dress up and invariably wore his own clothes). Reino like Valto is a rocker, but whereas the tailor has a kind of integrity in his chainsmoking caffeinated silence, Reino drinks vodka straight from the bottle and is prone to explosive pugnacity. His face is a picture of pensive wiliness when he turns to see Valto coming for his car, and before he hands it over says he would prefer payment first. He evidently knows Valto is a bit thick, as his labour costs are about five times the rest of the bill. Valto hands over the markkas stolen from his Mum and gets into the car, whereupon and without explanation they embark on a directionless road journey. First though, Valto has to start the car and he remarks that it makes more noises than it used to, to which Reino responds that it needs ‘fine tuning’. His notion of that is to lift up the bonnet, tear out two major engine components, and fling them on the ground. Then with the tailor gargling non-stop coffee and the mechanic slurping vodka straight from the bottle, off they go.

Valto makes precisely one non- monosyllabic speech in the entire film, which is to chastise his Mum for the coffee tragedy. Reino by contrast manages all of two monologues longer than a grunt. In his excitement at the start of the journey, he describes getting in a fight while visiting Lapland, meaning knocking a country hick’s face in and chipping his tooth. He had to go back to a Lapland court of course, where he was fined heavily, but, he adds contemptuously, when the court documentation arrived, he used it in the toilet and the rest went to the kid next door to draw on. Otherwise their hypermasculine silence aka quasi-autism, is brought into focus when in a road café they are spotted by two women lugging suitcases and heading for a boat to Tallinn. One, the Estonian Tatiana, is played by Kaurismaki regular Kati Outinen (born 1961) small, fair-haired, pretty, and often passive and melancholy in her roles, but here rather more cheerful, even optimistic. Her friend is a buxom Russian from Alma Ata called Klavdia (played by Kirsi Tykkylainen) who unlike Tatiana knows not a word of Finnish. All four of these heroes chainsmoke and where the men are addicted to coffee and vodka, Klavdia is addicted to putting on make-up, so that all pauses, ennuis and disappointments are solved by taking out her cosmetics and whacking on the slap.

Once they persuade the dozy Finns to take them to the boat, inside the jalopy the women decide to introduce themselves and do so decorously and politely. They then request the men to do the same, whereafter there is an endless silence not so much resounding as written in the stars from the beginning of time. This motif continues as they stop at a bleak and massive wooden shack that turns out to be a country hotel. Even the owner here is monosyllabic and chainsmoking, and she wordlessly gives Reino a pair of pharmacy specs when it is obvious he cannot see the registration form he has to fill in. They book two rooms with two single beds each, and, with the women obediently following after them, without consultation Klavdia enters Valto’s room and Tatiana opts for Reino’s. There anything like tender romance is hard to find as sozzled Reino sits snoozing on a chair while Valto chooses to make his precious suit immaculate by taking a blow-torch to it and then putting it underneath his bedding. The two men go down to dinner but make no invites to their lady guests who simply follow on. Their dinner passes in total silence until suddenly Reino starts eloquently reminiscing to Valto about a bus trip he had abroad where all the guys wanted to look at some ruins. Ruins! he scoffs. And when the bus was full of vodka, and there are plenty of ruins all over Finland in any case!

There is a band playing in the hotel but neither of the Finns wish to dance. The two women twirl together happily enough, and when Reino gruffly announces he is going to bed Tatiana, follows him hopefully. Within seconds he is sprawled on the bed fast asleep, and with his cigarette about to burn the mattress.  Tatiana removes the fag and smokes it herself, then tenderly puts the coverlet over him, turns sideways and, fully dressed, falls asleep. Next door nothing is happening either, and it would seem that romance between these silent Finns and amiable foreigners is an impossibility. Until that is at a piquant moment when they are sat outside the car  for a break, and Tatiana and Reino are adjacent, she suddenly and instinctively rests her head on his shoulder. Instead of running away, basilisk Reino shows signs of something, who knows, it might even be an emotion. Nothing happens for the moment, but eventually and once the women have been put on their boat, Reino and Valto impulsively decide to embark too.

After Klavdia has got on the train to Alma Ata, and Tatiana has reached her incredibly dilapidated Tallinn shack, Reino confounds Valto as much as the coffee addict can be confounded, by saying he is staying there with her. With perfect timing he then calmly announces, I will write. Valto wordlessly shrugs and decides to return home, and when he gets back belatedly recalls that he has locked his Mum in a cupboard for rather a long time. Without greeting, much less talking to his unabashed parent, he releases her from prison,  and resumes his sewing, his chainsmoking and his endless bebbing of consolatory coffee.

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