NEW YORK — IT'S often hard to say whether Aki Kaurismaki's films are comedies or tragedies. They can be sad enough to draw an audience's tears, and even violence may erupt at a climactic moment. Yet quiet smiles or outright laughs may be equally present in the same story, and sometimes a single moment blends bleakness and humor into a combination that seems absolutely seamless.
This mastery of conflicting moods is one of the skills that have helped Mr. Kaurismaki emerge as Finland's most internationally hailed filmmaker - rivaled only by his brother, Mika Kaurismaki, whose movies have not gathered a following quite so wide even though they're often more ambitious and operate on a somewhat larger scale.
Mika's last major film, "Zombie and the Ghost Train," has not found a commercial release in the United States despite its success at the New York Film Festival last year.
By contrast, two pictures from Aki are generating lots of discussion this season: "The Match Factory Girl," which opens theatrically this month, and "La Vie de Boheme," a hit at the latest edition of the New York filmfest.
Filmed in expressive black-and-white tones, "La Vie de Boheme" is based on the same Henri Murger novel that inspired "La Boheme," the exquisite Puccini opera. The plot centers on Rudolfo, an artist who dreams of beauty and romance while living in drabness and poverty, and his beloved Mimi, whose fragile charm is matched by a wistful nature and a frail constitution.
Filmed in contemporary Paris, the movie is wry and hilarious as Rudolfo courts Mimi, carouses with his friends, and coaxes much-needed cash from an art connoisseur whose taste is so bad he thinks Rudolfo's paintings are masterpieces. Then a true Kaurismaki miracle takes place: With changes in mood so subtle they can barely be detected, the film dissolves from happiness and hilarity to somberness and sobriety, ending on a note of sublimely wrought tragedy as Mimi expires and Rudolfo walks alone into the n ight.
Kaurismaki has never crafted a finer moment, and neither has any other filmmaker in recent memory. Praise also goes to the cast led by Matti Pelonpaa, a Kaurismaki regular who's familiar to American moviegoers for his fine work in Jim Jarmusch's recent "Night on Earth," a picture so influenced by the Kaurismaki sensibility that it has characters named Aki and Mika in its last section. Also on hand is the fine French actor Jean-Pierre Leaud as the earnest art collector.
"The Match Factory Girl" is a more mischievous movie than "La Vie de Boheme," blending lightness and darkness in different ways. The protagonist is Iris, a Finnish laborer who rebels against the arid monotony of her daily life by purchasing a lively new dress and using it to lure a new acquaintance into romance.
Her freshly acquired love life quickly turns sour and corrosive, but in ways that are as witty as they are grim. Again the atmosphere weaves tragedy and comedy into a tapestry that's at once transparently simple and dauntingly complex. And again the cast, headed by Kati Outinen as Iris, is just about perfect.
* Neither film has been rated. `La Vie de Boheme' deals with adult themes, while `The Match Factory Girl' includes sexuality and violence depicted in a relatively restrained manner.