Saturday, August 27, 2011
I Hired A Contract Killer (1990)
Aki Kaurismäki’s I Hired a Contract Killer (1990) is a detour from the Finnish filmmaker’s usual language and country, for he sets the film in London and has a French actor in the lead. Based on an idea by film director Peter von Bagh, Kaurismäki’s original screenplay bares similarities to both Robert Siodmak’s German film Der Mann, der seinen Mörder sucht (1931) and Ernst Neubach’s French film On demande un assassin (1949). Yet, I Hired a Contract Killer presents Kaurismäki’s reoccurring themes and his dark sense of humor. Similar to the pacing of his previous film The Match Factory Girl (Tulitikkutehtaan tyttö) (1990), Kaurismäki’s follow-up deals with loneliness and desperation with more optimistic results. Kaurismäki brings his Finnish perspective in concerns of cultural immigration, communication (or lack there of), and the dismal and empty conditions of the working class. The film’s setting, however, is in London, the main protagonist is French and the soundtrack is made up of mostly old American songs, lending to the film a very surreal environment (especially when viewing with un-removable Japanese subtitles). Though he is a Finnish director, Kaurismäki’s vision encompasses the influences of other westernized cultures.
The story concerns Henri Boulanger (Jean-Pierre Leaud) who works in the drab registry office of Her Majesty’s Waterworks. The viewers are introduced to Henri through the appearance of a miniature replicate of the Eiffel Tower used as a paperweight on piles of reports. Because he is French, Henri is also an outsider to his British surroundings. A diligent worker, Henri eats by himself (while all his co-workers fraternize), is the last to leave the office, and lives alone in a small apartment. The one thing that Henri nurtures in life is a couple of plants on his rooftop, though he manages to topple them over when watering them. Henri spends his night eating biscuits and drinking tea while staring out his window at a brick wall. The next day, the head of department informs him that the government has decided to privatize the Waterworks, and the new owners want to downsize employees, beginning with foreigners. After fifteen years of service, Henri is fired without warning, and given a broken golden watch as compensation. The solitary and reclusive Henri realizes, after looking at his phonebook, that the only two numbers he has is of the company that just fired him and a deceased aunt. Feeling desperate and hopeless, Henri decides to kill himself and purchases a sturdy rope; however, he fails to hang himself successfully. He then tries to put his head in a gas oven, but unfortunately for Henri, London is in the midst of a gas strike. Henri finally convinces a cab driver to take him to a seedy part of town, to a place called the Honolulu Bar, where he places a contract out on himself to be killed.
Henri waits for his killer to come for him but gets bored, leaves a note on his door, goes to the local pub, and decides to begin smoking, drinking and falling in love. After meeting Margaret (Margi Clarke) a local flower seller, he decides he wants to live after all. Yet, when he returns to the Honolulu Bar to cancel the order, the place is demolished. Henri spends the rest of the film trying to elude his killer; unfortunately, things get even more complicated when Henri walks into a botched jewelry burglary and is framed for murder. While Henri has a newfound love for life and Margaret, his killer is terminally ill with cancer. Eventually Henri is forced to hide out and work at Vic’s French Hamburgers, a tiny restaurant securely hidden away in a cemetery.
Aki Kaurismäki’s films often focus on characters of working class backgrounds who either commit themselves to banal jobs or avoid responsibility all together. For example, in his film The Match Factory Girl, the female protagonist works a dead-end position at a match factory, financially supporting her parents who do nothing all day. In Kaurismäki’s The Bohemian Life (La vie de bohème) (1992), all the characters (a writer, an artist, and musician) avoid conventional lifestyles and occupations. His characters are people of few words, and conversation is kept to a bare minimum. Kaurismäki often showcases Finnish culture as a depressed, chain-smoking, heavy-drinking society of lonely romantics. Though his films are often short (usually under 80 minutes), Kaurismäki’s languid pace, stationary shots, and minimal dialogue give the illusion of a longer film. The director also incorporates a great deal of dark humor to off set the gloomy predicaments his characters face. Kaurismäki’s continuous fascination for early American rock n’ roll, is showcased in most of his films, and is often used with a sense of irony. For instance, Andrew Nestingen writes, “Kaurismäki’s films exhibit recurrences of static camera, laconic and marginal characters, low-key lighting, American cars, and idiosyncratic musical choices, among many elements.” (Nestingen, pg 110.) In I Hired a Contract Killer, Kaurismäki depicts characters who are not so far removed from his depiction of Finnish culture. The characters are interacting as they would in any other Kaurismäki film.
Aki Kaurismäki and his brother Mika Kaurismäki have been making films in Finland since the early eighties. Both brothers set up a production company called Ville Alfa, which was based on a character Aki played in Mika’s first film The Liar (Valehtelija) (1981). In The Liar, Aki’s performance greatly resembles actor Jean-Pierre Léaud’s manic escapades in such French New Wave films as Antoine and Colette (1962), Masculin Féminin (1966), Stolen Kisses (Baisers voles) (1968) and The Mother and the Whore (La maman et la putain) (1973). Aki Kaurismäki not only mimics Léaud’s unpredictable nervous energy, but he even embodies a similar physicality to the actor. The character and company’s name “Ville Alfa” is even a direct nod to Jean Luc Godard’s film Alphaville (1965) (on which Léaud coincidentally was one of the assistant directors). In fact, Kaurismäki has said that, “he (Leaud) was my hero as an actor, when I was a young film buff. He was the best! Maybe five John Waynes or three Robert Ryans match one Jean-Pierre.“ (Leaud L’unique.)
Throughout the sixties, Jean-Pierre Léaud was the quintessential symbol French youth. Many of the major European film directors of the sixties and beyond grew up on a diet of films by Francois Truffaut and Jean Luc Godard, and consequently strived to include Léaud in their films. Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini worked with Léaud on Porcille (1969) and Bernardo Bertolucci cast him alongside Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris (1972). Polish second wave director Jerzy Skolimowski utilized Léaud’s quirkiness in Le Depart (1967) and Dialóg 20-40-60 (1968), while even Brazilian political director Glauber Rocha directed him in The Lion Has Seven Heads (1970). In the film I Hired A Contract Killer, Kaurismäki interprets Leaud’s previous cinematic incarnation to inhabit a mirrored space in cinema reflection. For example, Kaurismäki reflected, “When working with him, I was acting first for him, to show him how he should act. But I in fact was acting him acting, and then he imitated me acting him acting. So it made a whole circle.” (Leaud L’unique.) Kaurismäki would again use Leaud in his next film The Bohemian Life, which draws more influence from the French New Wave and is even shot in Paris.
Besides the influence of Jean-Pierre Leaud, Kaurismäki also channels French New Wave directors like Godard and Truffaut. I Hired A Contract Killer uses exaggerated colors in the interior spaces, where walls are painted in deep reds, golden yellows, or royal blue, reminding one of Godard’s use of color in such films as Contempt (1963), Pierrot le Fou (1965), or Made in U.S.A. (1966). It’s interesting that Kaurismäki’s next film The Bohemian Life was shot in black and white, presenting a stark contrast. Incidentally, Godard would jump from splashy color to black and white from film to film as well. In addition, Kaurismäki references the film poster art for Truffaut’s Stolen Kisses in I Hired A Contract Killer when Margaret kisses Henri and leaves a lipstick imprint on his forehead (33.20). This shot mimics the iconic poster art of Leaud’s earlier film, where his character Antoine is painted with a lipstick imprint on his forehead.
Though Kaurismäki uses a French character’s perspective to drive the narrative of I Hired A Contract Killer, he uses London’s landscape and its culture as the backdrop. This film derives some cinematic influence not just from France, but also from the United Kingdom. Dedicated to the memory of British filmmaker Michael Powell (who had died in 1990), I Hired A Contract Killer explores the theme of mortality, which was also a recurring idea in Powell’s work. In the Powell film Stairway to Heaven (1946), a wartime aviator must plead for his life with a celestial court, after he has cheated death in a plane crash and fallen in love with a woman. Similarly, in Kaurismäki’s film, the protagonist Henri is in a state of running and pleading with a contract killer for his own life, after he has fallen in love. Also, despite the plot similarities between Siodmak’s and Neubach’s films, Kaurismäki claims that it was the British made Last Holiday (1950) that influenced his film. The movie Last Holiday concerns a terminally ill agricultural machinery salesman who takes a final trip and finds his true value as a person. Kaurismäki states, “I made I Hired A Contract Killer because when I was ten years old I saw the film Last Holiday by Henry Cass, and since then haven’t been able to dispel the impression it made on my mind, in spite of mixed stages of life thrown by puberty, youth and later, manhood. I don’t think that I Hired A Contract Killer resembles in any way its model, and it’s not meant to, either.” (Toho Laserdisc.) Though differing in plot points, the life-affirming message in Stairway to Heaven, Last Holiday and I Hired A Contract Killer are similar.
Despite the film’s British setting, the soundtrack to the film is made up of early American songs that punctuate the isolation of the characters. “Body and Soul” by Billie Holiday emphasizes the loneliness of Henri’s landlord, while Holiday’s “Time on my Hands” illustrates the dead-end patrons of the Honolulu Bar. Reoccurring rhythm and blues numbers like “Need Your Loving So Bad” and “Suffering with the Blues” from Little Willie John are aural manifestations of Henri’s internal state. In addition, through the inclusion of Joe Strummer (ex-member of The Clash), a British lyrical perspective is formed. Joe Strummer makes a small cameo performing “Burning Light” in a pub, where a picture of Elvis Presley hangs behind him. (If Kaurismäki is referencing his connections between himself and his cinematic hero Leaud, then he is also bonding Strummer with his idol Elvis.) Strummer’s “Burning Light” lyrically conjures up Americana images of deserts and California roads, reminiscent of highway life found in Kaurismäki’s earlier film Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989). It is Joe Strummer’s appearance that lends a real sense of British authenticity, legitimizing its London setting. Though Kaurismäki claims that, “I made the film in England because people there speak a civilized language that I passably master myself. It greatly facilitates the shooting if one understands at least a part of the dialogue.” (Toho Laserdisc.)
Despite the ever-growing interest in Aki Kaurismäki, and the recent release of three films through the Criterion Collection, it’s surprising that I Hired A Contract Killer has not ever had an official release in America. What makes it especially surprising is that it’s one of the few Kaurismäki films presented in English. Yet, the film has never been released on VHS or DVD in America, and one has to hunt down a copy of the 1991 Japanese Laserdisc just to see it. Despite the rarity of the film, its influence can be found in such films as Warren Beatty’s Bulworth (1998) and the lesser-known Killing Emmett Young (2002). Hopefully one day I Hired A Contract Killer will earn the audience it deserves, and Kaurismäki’s films will have wider availability. Kaurismäki’s vision encapsulates many westernized influences, and projects a very unique Finnish perspective.
Kaurismäki, Aki. Interview for I Hired A Contract Killer Japanese Laserdisc Insert. Toho Laserdisc TLL 2423. 9 March, 1991.
Leaud L’unique: Un Documentaire. Dir. Serge Le Peron. Universal, Canal + Wide Eye Pictures. 2001.
Nestingen, Andrew. Crime and Fantasy in Scandinavia: Fiction, Film, and Social Change. University of Washington Press, 2008.