NEW YORK — AKI KAURISMAKI is not exactly a household name. But after more than a dozen features, shorts, and screenplays over the past dozen years, this remarkably gifted Finnish filmmaker certainly deserves to be.
Having made a strong impression on art-film admirers with early works like "Ariel" and "Crime and Punishment," he has recently cracked the commercial barrier with such hard-to-describe films as "The Match Factory Girl," a sardonic romance, and "Leningrad Cowboys Go America," a rock-and-roll road movie.
Now, after a couple of years' hiatus, Kaurismaki is back with the most mature, emotionally rich, and heartbreakingly hilarious of all his movies to date.
Its title is "La Vie de Boheme," and if that rings a bell, it's because Kaurismaki has based his screenplay on the same Henri Murger novel that inspired Giacomo Puccini's famous opera "La Boheme."
The key characters of Puccini's work are all on hand in Kaurismaki's film, including Rodolfo, the talented but starving artist, and Mimi, the waif he loves too much and loses too soon.
Maverick that he is, however, Kaurismaki does not intend his movie as a tribute to the celebrated opera. In fact, he says in a statement that one reason for making it was "to take revenge on Puccini," whose reputation has been inflated at the expense of Murger and the original novel, "Scenes de la Vie de Boheme," published in 1851.
Hoping to correct this injustice and revive Murger's name, Kaurismaki devised what he calls a diabolical scheme. By making what he says is "a bad script and a correspondingly bad film," he would drive moviegoers "first into disgust and then into rage."
But at the same time, he continues, he cunningly placed into the movie "some scenes that, even from beneath all the visual clumsiness, suggest a greater pen as their source. The most enthusiastic - the most angry - of the altogether 40 viewers will seek out the original work and recognize its genius." Murger's novel will then enjoy renewed fame, the overrated Puccini will be forgotten, and Kaurismaki can consider himself "the peasant who ... once did the great poet a service."
Is it possible Kaurismaki is serious about all this?
Judging from the movie itself, now opening commercially after premiering at the New York Film Festival last year, both answers are equally true.
"La Vie de Boheme" is enormously funny, making ingenious verbal and visual jokes about everything from the pomposity of art collectors to the cheapest kind of fish to order at a seedy cafe. Yet there's nothing frivolous about the love between Rodolfo and Mimi, or about the profundity of his feelings when death steals her away at the end of the story.
THE movie is a great artistic success, and Kaurismaki must know that if it does boost Murger's posthumous reputation, this will result from the film's excellence. The portion of his statement that's hardest to believe is that he set out to make a bad picture. Everything about "La Vie de Boheme," from its amusingly deadpan performances to its expressive black-and-white photography, shows Kaurismaki's brilliant talent.
Credit does not go to him alone, of course, even if he did serve as writer, director, editor, and producer of the film. Timo Salminen did the evocative cinematography and John Ebden designed the production.
And there is much splendid acting, led by Evelyne Didi and the versatile Matti Pellonpaa, whose credits include several films by Kaurismaki and the last segment of "Night on Earth," the 1991 taxicab epic by American filmmaker Jim Jarmusch.
A nod also goes to the picture's freewheeling music track, which mingles Tchaikovsky with the Fake Trashmen and Little Willie John, among numerous others - not including Puccini.
"La Vie de Boheme" is a low-budget movie, like all Kaurismaki productions, and if its blend of humor and pathos doesn't get under your skin during the first few scenes, you may never be impressed with it.
"La Vie de Boheme" is still a stunning achievement from a filmmaker of audacity. It's hard to think of another director who would end a statement on a new movie by telling his audience, "Farewell, don't see this film, and rush to the bookstore to demand the original."
* "La Vie de Boheme" is not rated. It includes scenes of illness and a bit of vulgar language.