'Boheme' film is witty like book, not weepy like opera

April 07, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Staff Writer

Aki Kaurismaki's "La Vie de Boheme" is Puccini's "La Boheme" shorn of the opera's cloying sentimentality and threepenny lyricism. The Finnish filmmaker's source for this film -- being screened at 7:30 tonight at the Baltimore International Film Festival -- is the same Henri Burger novel that inspired Puccini. But that's where the resemblance ends.

Kaurismaki's 1992 update of the novel is as laid-back, hip and dead-pan humorous as Puccini's operatic treatment is manipulative, perfervid and weepy. In the end, it's the film that's the more genuinely moving of the two.

Anyone who has tried bohemian life for a time can attest to Kaurismaki's mastery of its details: the scrounging in garbage cans; the weeks-long accumulation of dishes in kitchens; the harping upon the universal neglect of one's genius; and, above all, the search for sympathetic companions.

So it is that Rodolfo (Matti Pellonpaa), an Albanian painter in danger of deportation, Marcel (Andre Wilms), a playwright who flies into a rage upon the excision of a semi-colon from his 21-act play, and Schaunard (Kari Vaananen), a wild-man musician who uses his head (literally) when he composes, bond together. They are misfits, but they are also fully realized human beings whose decency and affection for one another raise them above the pitiable.

This is a nutty world, and into it comes the tubercular cigarette girl, Mimi (Evelyne Didi), who falls in love with Rodolfo. Mimi is not young and not particularly pretty. But such is the genuineness of the feeling in "La Vie de Boheme," that when Rodolfo explains why he can't stay -- "I am hotblooded, and you are very beautiful" -- when he puts Mimi up for the night, we smile, but do not laugh.

"La Vie de Boheme" follows its characters' meandering lifestyles, as they solve their crises about obtaining food, paint and money in imaginative and unconventional ways. But its great strength is its focus upon affection as the glue that binds.

And not just human affection. One of the key actors in "La Vie de Boheme" is Laika, a sweet-natured Belgian Shepherd who plays Rodolfo's animal companion, Baudelaire. There are wonderful shots of Baudelaire as he patiently lies next to his empty food dish, his eyes shining with expectation. There is an extraordinary scene in which Baudelaire graciously gives up a much-prized, meaty bone so that the painter can make Mimi soup. And in one of the film's most affecting moments, the dying Mimi curls up around Baudelaire.

Kaurismaki's quirky, offbeat humor never approaches the sentimental. But the movie's sad, beautifully shot conclusion -- the expressive black-and-white cinematography is by Timo Salminen -- leaves one smiling through tears. After Mimi's death, Rodolfo leaves the hospital, telling the waiting Schaunard and Marcel that he needs to be alone. As the camera follows him and Baudelaire, another dog prances into the field of vision and invites Baudelaire to play. As the two dogs cavort alongside Rodolfo, this superficially stark film ends with the notes of joy that affection creates in any life, whether bohemian or bourgeois, canine or human.

MOVIE REVIEW

What: "La Vie de Boheme," part of Baltimore International Film Festival

When: Tonight, 7:30 p.m.

Where: The Baltimore Museum of Art, Charles and 31st streets

Tickets: $6 general admission; $5 for Baltimore Film Forum and BMA members

Call: (410) 889-1993

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