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‘La Vie de Boheme’ (NR)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 05, 1993

Nothing actualy "happens" in an Aki Kaurismaki film. But things emerge -- deadpan, funny things. You have to become accustomed to the movie's low blood pressure, its subtly satiric rhythms.

The Finnish director has an exact target in mind, the niche between bathos and true poignance. His characters seem subdued, even hypnotized, but they're single-mindedly aware of the grim existence around their necks. The effect is funny, but not whoopingly campy. Their personal pain is too real and involving to push them into that zone.

In "La Vie de Boheme," Kaurismaki's slow-and-steady mood piece about artistic squalor in Paris, all of these things come into signature play.

Based on the same 19th-century novel (Henri Murger's "Scenes de la Vie de Boheme) that inspired Puccini's opera, the story is about three down-and-out losers doomed to penury and artistic obsession. There's Albanian painter Rodolfo (Matti Pellonpaa), playwright Marcel (Andre Wilms) and composer Schaunard (Kari Vaananen). Their problems are exactly the same: no rent or food money and the futile struggle to be recognized.

It doesn't help Marcel that he refuses to reduce his 21-act play to commercial size or that the chances of Schaunard's latest work making it (it's called "The Influence of Blue on Art") seem remote.

The story -- by Kaurismaki's disingenuous admission -- is intentionally awful and meandering. But it's regularly interrupted by the mutely amusing -- or the sad. Enter, for instance, rich gentleman Jean-Pierre Leaud (Francois Truffaut's erstwhile leading man), who commissions a self-portrait from Rodolfo. While Leaud poses, playwright Marcel, pretending to hang up the client's tuxedo jacket, uses it for a job interview. He gets the job and brings the jacket back just in time (actually, he's about 10 excruciating seconds late).

An affair between Rodolfo and Mimi (Evelyne Didi), a quiet, constantly perturbed woman, becomes very real, particularly when poverty (and Rodolfo's eviction by the immigration authorities) forces them apart. She eventually returns but they have to face her tubercular future together.

"Boheme," which runs until Nov. 17 at the Biograph, will be shown in tandem (from Nov. 12 to 17) with three other Kaurismaki films: "The Match Factory Girl," "Leningrad Cowboys Go America" and "Ariel." To see one Kaurismaki is to see them all, but you should see them all.

LA VIE DE BOHEME (Unrated) -- In French with subtitles.

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