With Aki Kaurismäki’s latest, Le Havre, in cinemas, we take a trip back to where its hero Marcel Marx’s story began.
La Vie de Bohème is based on Henri Murger’s collection of stories set in the Latin Quarter of Paris during the 1840s. Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki plays fast and loose with the original text in this 1992 adaptation, not least by updating the story to the modern era. It tells the story of three floundering (piss) artists: a writer, a painter and a musician. These lovable reprobates are, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, drunk in the gutter gazing up at the stars.
Performed and shot in Kaurismäki’s trademark deadpan, near-stationary style, La Vie de Bohème captures both the romance and the eternal struggle of the artist: the highs, the poverty-stricken lows, the constant inebriation, the collaborations, the desperation not to sell out. It’s lent weight and drama by its moody monochromatic presentation.
La Vie de Bohème begins with the eviction of Marcel Marx (André Wilms), a hard-up playwright whose manuscript has just been rejected by a publisher due to its ludicrous length. We are introduced to Marcel as he falls ignominiously in a heap whilst scrounging amongst rubbish. He’s three months behind in his rent and the following day his landlord turns up to settle the debt and oust him. He arrives with some comic muscle in tow: a growling spiky haired accomplice called Hugo, who Marx fortunately manages to outwit.
Marx’s luckless landlord ("experience has shaken my faith in tenants") suffers further misfortune when his next tenant turns out to be the similarly impoverished pianist, Schaunard (Kari Väänänen). He’s a rather chaotic character who beats up a taxi driver for having the cheek to charge him and who offers to speak to a woman on a friend’s behalf only to end up hastily seducing her. When Marx returns to claim his belongings he finds Schaunard brazenly wearing his robe. Needless to say the two become fast friends over a bottle of wine or three.
The third member of their troupe is the kindly Rodolfo (Matti Pellonpää), a talented Albanian painter residing in the country illegally. Rodolfo’s is a more romantic journey; he falls for the charming Mimi (Evelyne Didi) when she turns up on his doorstep looking for one of his neighbours. Though Rodolfo can offer her little, theirs is a relationship to root for.
The group have a run of good fortune when Rodolfo manages to secure a commission from Blancheron (The 400 Blows’ Jean-Pierre Léaud), a wealthy sugar manufacturer and enthusiast. While Blancheron sits for his portrait, Marcel sneaks off with his dinner jacket to attend an interview. With confidence to spare he is hired to edit an arts magazine by an unmistakable Samuel Fuller (the legendary director of The Naked Kiss).
Kaurismäki has inexplicably described himself as lazy (he has said "if it was up to me I wouldn’t do anything") but by anyone’s standards he’s a prolific filmmaker. Often taking on several roles – including producer, editor, writer, director and actor – he gets films made in his own unmistakable style, blessed as he is with control over the creative process.
Anyone who’s seen a Kaurismäki film before will be familiar with his blend of dour and sweet. In person he’s gloomy, grumpy and gruff, defiantly his own man but with touchingly honourable intentions and a mischievous streak. Like the recent and similarly wonderful Le Havre, with which it shares one of its heroes – Marcel Marx – La Vie de Bohème champions the dishevelled but decent. The oddball trio drive round squeezed into a three-wheeler – and how fitting that is considering that each is a well-worn wheel in this curious but perfectly charming vehicle.