“You Have So Much Ahead”: A Few Words About Aki Kaurismäki

Azazel Jacobs shares a short appreciation of the beloved Finnish writer-director, who is being celebrated with a retrospective at NYC's Metrograph.

The Metrograph theater is about to have an Aki Kaurismäki retrospective, showing films that are normally impossible to see in a theater. See every film you can. There is no bad, only better as each in its own way explores the amazing and fucked up ways we exist, both funny and sad, warm even when cold. They show what we do to each at our worst and for each other at our best. The films are small-scale, their precision essential in saying so much with so little. No one is better than Kaurismäki in knowing what sliver of space to stage in to convey the world each film takes place in, and how it connects to ours. Aki proves that scope has nothing to do with budget.

Leningrad Cowboys Go America was the first of his films that I saw, and I didn’t respond to it initially. It was only when my friend, fellow filmmaker and upstairs neighbor at the time Gerardo Naranjo, showed me his worn VHS copy of La Vie de Bohème (above) that I first found my way in to Kaurismäki’s work. The film is about three artists searching for a poetic Paris that most likely never existed beyond the movies, who discover each other and then create it for themselves. Real-world concerns – lack of money, lack of home and lack of a visa – try to get the better of them, but the magic of love, of a two-headed fish, a lot of wine, and the presence of Jean-Pierre Léaud, are on their side. Composed in a gorgeous black and white, Kaurismäki’s style inherently recognizes the lie in art – and perhaps especially in film – in its search for greater truth. His films Juha, Ariel and The Match Factory Girl are also all fantastic. His work is generous and his actors the best of the best – each character lives long after the final frame.

I’m gushing, but how else express my feelings for his work? I try my best in my own films, hoping they will be in conversation with his, pushing me to find ways to say more with less, not to fear attempting poetry, to take people seriously but not necessarily the world. I did try to express it, directly, after spotting him early one morning at a bar many years ago. My partner Diaz and I approached, stammered our thanks, repeatedly touched our hearts as words failed us. A long silence followed as he looked deeply into each of our faces. Then, as deadpan as one of his characters, he said, “You both are so young. You have so much ahead.”

And like his films, it was as much a warning as encouragement to keep going.

Azazel Jacobs is an NYC-raised writer-director, most recently of The Lovers, produced and distributed by A24, and whose screenplay was nominated for a Spirit Award (2018). Before this, he was a writer and the director of the acclaimed Sky/HBO series Doll & Em. Other credits include Terri (2011, ATO Pictures) and Momma’s Man (2008, Kino). He studied directing at SUNY Purchase and the American Film Institute. You can follow him on Instagram @azazeljacobs. (Photo by Patrick Reynolds.)