A grindingly slow and contemplative look at the misfortunes of a nightwatchman whose romantic nature and intense loneliness makes him a dupe for a gang of robbers, despite its grimness Lights in the Dusk is quietly compelling.
Lights in the Dusk is the third part of Aki Kaurismaki’s trilogy of films which, for want of a better description, explore disenfranchisement in modern Helsinki. Anyone who found Drifting Clouds’ look at the lives of the unemployed or The Man Without A Past’s exploration of homelessness too downbeat should steer well clear – this is even slower and much less hopeful. Although Lights in the Dusk operates on some levels as a fable, it’s unrelenting in its presentation of the dark despair beneath the city’s prosperous surface.
Koistinen, a security guard, played by Janne Hyytiainen in his first leading role, lives a brutal and intensely limited life locked away behind a wall of shyness and loneliness. He dreams of a better future and tells himself that his three years on the job is “just temporary”. Even his fellow guards pointedly avoid including him in after-work entertainment, and the nearest thing he has to a friend is the limp-looking Aila (Maria Heiskanen) who tends a late night snack caravan he frequents. When the physically luminous but equally repressed Mirja (Maria Jarvenhelmi) enters his world, he can’t quite believe she’s really interested in him, but begins to court her in his own stilted way. She is as cold and uncommunicative as he, an ice queen whose mission is to obtain information and frame him for a robbery at the shopping mall he guards for a local gangster, Lindholm. As the film progresses what little Koistinen has is systematically stripped from him; all that remains is his strange faith in a woman he doesn’t realise never even liked him.
Kaurismaki suggests the merest possibility of redemption and rebirth for his ‘hero’ in the very low-key climax, but it is a tiny nod. Most of the main characters are repressed, inhabiting a drab city, deliberately flatly shot; this Helsinki has no twinkling lights, merely lumpen buildings and shoddy, barren homes. The cinematography reminded me of Fassbinder in the early 70s, the cameras barely moving for long periods, interiors like stage sets that the characters enter and exit. Kaurismaki understands the majesty of industrial landscapes and urban architecture and while seeking to emphasise his characters’ alienation none-the-less produces some quietly beautiful imagery. However, in pushing to place disassociation at the heart of the film in every possible way, some of the performances, particularly Hyytiainen’s, come over as wooden. Ultimately it is hard to empathise with characters that are so distant and laconic.
Overwhelmingly depressing despite occasional moments of morbid humour, Lights in the Dusk works better as an intellectual study than a drama.