Posted by Susan Doll on June 18, 2012
This week, I attended a special screening for Facets patrons of a contemporary, black-and-white, silent film. And, no, the film was not The Artist, the recent Oscar-winning silent comedy-drama by French director Michel Hazanavicius. The film we watched was called Juha, and it was directed by Finland’s talented native son, Aki Kaurismaki. Released in 1999, Juha predates The Artist by a decade, but the very characteristics that made The Artist a much-talked-about sensation in 2012 turned out to be the kiss of death for Juha, at least in the United States. By 2003, after an extensive tour of international festivals, Juha failed to find a distributor. According to Mark Jenkins of the Washington Post, “It’s not hard to understand why American distributors passed on it. Based on a 1911 novel that’s unknown here, the film is in black-and-white and is ‘silent’….” I am not sure I agree with Jenkins.
Exactly why The Artist was a major sensation while Juha failed to find a distributor has little to do with the content of either film but everything to do with availability and exposure. That’s a major issue regarding current independent and international films in the U.S. Without exposure in the press, proper distribution to major cities, and money to market properly, they simply go unnoticed. Juha, and other alternatives to standard Hollywood fare are simply too far off the radar of most movie-lovers. I am convinced that many movie-goers would return to the theaters or eagerly stream/rent non-Hollywood films if only they knew about them.
The plot of Juha is intentionally familiar, particularly for lovers of silent movies. Based on a novel by Juhani Aho, the film tells the tragic story of the title character, a lumbering, awkward farmer with a permanent limp and big heart. He lives happily on his farm near a small village with his wife, Marja, a young woman whom he raised from childhood after she was orphaned. As in D.W. Griffith’s films back in the day, Marja’s innate innocence is signified through her nurturing relationship with the animals on the farm. Marja and Juha’s happiness is threatened when a slick stranger named Shemeikka arrives, driving an ultra-modern car that breaks down near the farm. Juha offers to fix the car, but it requires parts that he cannot get till the next day. Shemeikka spends the night and proceeds to seduce Marja, who resists his advances. But, his attentions awaken something in her, and after he leaves, she changes. She begins to wear lipstick, read beauty magazines, and smoke cigarettes while ignoring Juha and the farm.
When Shemeikka returns bearing gifts, Marja agrees to go off with him. They sneak away while Juha sleeps off a festive night of drinking. An afternoon of romance in the sun-kissed forest turns out to be the high point of Marja’s relationship with the conniving Shemeikka, who has lured her into the big city under false pretenses. Like the malicious characters in the white slavery racket of the silent era, the malevolent Shemeikka runs a brothel and den of iniquity, and he intends Marja to be the latest addition to his stable. The familiar storyline about an innocent girl lured to a dark fate in the evil city raises expectations of escapes, rescues, and comeuppances, but Kaurismaki toys with audience expectations in ways that left our viewing audience talking for hours afterward.
Like many auteurs, Aki Kaurismaki admires silent films for their visual storytelling. In interviews, he has grumbled about contemporary films that are overly dependent on dialogue, which “has polluted our storytelling to a pale shadow of original cinema.” The writing on the poster at the top of this post is Karuismaki’s hand-written comment: “Because people talk so much nowadays (without a reason) some silence doesn’t harm. And—why not—let us (since it is a beautiful day) visit the essence of Cinema.” Part of his purpose in making Juha was to return to visual filmmaking in which viewers must actively participate in grasping nuances and noticing details, which are depicted through close-ups, editing, and mise-en-scene. In the discussion after the film, each of us revealed details we noticed—a close-up of Shemeikka crushing a butterfly to telegraph his cruelty, pictures on the wall that serve as commentary, a close-up of Marja and Juha’s motorbike helmets sitting side by side to suggest their happy relationship—that furthered the story or explained the personalities of the characters. Like the best of silent films, Juha uses only minimal intertitles to interrupt the story, and they generally do not further the action but serve as irony, commentary, or emphasis.
Kaurismaki goes beyond merely emulating the conventions and techniques of silent filmmaking, however. He references the history of silent film, reminds us of its reliance on comedy and melodrama, and reworks the format to accommodate his style and themes. The resulting film balances historic reference and personal style and seems to be located between the sincerity of melodrama and the bite of farce.
The first section of the film uses the iconography and buoyancy of silent comedy as Juha and Marja make their way to the village to sell their cabbages on market day. Close-ups and simple intertitles introduce the characters, who whiz down the country road on a motorbike and sidecar—a much-used vehicle in silent comedies, from Charlie Chase’s Sold at Auction to Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. to Laurel and Hardy’s Two Tars. Kaurismaki also uses the exaggeration of silent comedy to depict Juha as the consummate handyman while also suggesting his hopeless naivete: For example, Juha whips out an oversized wrench the size of baseball bat to fix almost everything, including Shemeikka’s fancy car, but he also sleeps with his handy wrench while Marja curls up on the floor. Small wonder she is putty in Shemeikka’s hands.
Typical of silent films, the time frame for Juha and Marja’s idyllic life is ambiguous, but when Shemeikka enters the story, he brings with him an unwelcome modern sensibility with his new car, city duds, and flask of alcohol. And, his entrance is accompanied by the blaring guitars of rock music. The tone and temper of the story evolve into high-pitched melodrama worthy of Cecil B. DeMille’s films with Gloria Swanson as seduction and temptation dominate the action.
In the last section, when Juha enters Shemeikka’s lair for the inevitable showdown, a dutch angle signals that events will take a dark turn. The dutch angle, in which the image is tilted on a diagonal, is a German Expressionist technique used to suggest that something is dreadfully wrong. As the scene between Juha and Shemeikka unfolds, an Expressionist style takes over, telegraphing a dark and pessimistic end. High-contrast lighting creates ominous shadows, and oblique angles produce an eerie effect. In Juha, Kaurismaki has referenced the gamut of the silent film experience, from the light-heartedness of comedies to the dark side of human nature exposed in German Expressionism.
Those who enjoyed The Artist will appreciate Juha for similar reasons—the skill of the actors in performing without benefit of their voices, the focus on visual storytelling, and the nod to silent cinema in general. However, Juha differs from The Artist because Kaurismaki does not sentimentalize the material or romanticize the silent era of filmmaking. Whereas Hazanavicius set out to recreate the sublimely innocent world of the silent cinema, Kaurismaki sets out to destroy it. In that regard, the film fits the director’s characteristic style and themes: the union of visual stylization and the bleak realities of working class life. The characters in his films are routinely depicted as defenseless individuals defeated by uncaring forces beyond their control. As a matter of fact, three of his films from the 1990s are known as the Loser Trilogy.
While I whole-heartedly recommend Juha, I was not entirely pleased with the conclusion; I felt Kaurismaki was needlessly unkind to the characters in the end. This sparked a great debate during the group discussion. Those more familiar with Kaurismaki’s work were much more accepting of the ending than I was, though a few, especially women viewers, agreed with me.
Juha, which makes a great double feature with The Artist, is available on DVD from Netflix.
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