Sunday, September 25, 2011

Random Film Review: I Hired a Contract Killer

Dir: Aki Kaurismaki | UK | 1990 | 79mins

London, England. 1990. The Conservative Party are still in power. Anti-Poll Tax riots spread throughout the country. The Docklands is being redeveloped. British film director Michael Powell dies. Somehow, these events all seem to inform Kaurismaki's low-key thriller I Hired a Contract Killer.

The film begins with lonely Frenchman Henri Boulanger being made redundant from his dull clerical job at Her Majesty's Waterworks: the company is being privatised and job cuts need to be made. Foreigners go first. Despairing, Boulanger tries to kill himself but fails. A newspaper article inspires him to hire a hit man on his own life. Then he falls in love with flower-seller Margaret (Margi Clarke, from Letter to Brezhnev) and has a change of heart.

As is usual for a Kaurismaki film, the plot is slight, the humour dark and the acting low-key. Boulonger is played deadpan by Jean-Pierre Léaud, an actor greatly admired by Kaurismaki. Darling of the French New Wave, Léaud's screen debut was Truffaut's Les Quatre Cents Coups (The Four Hundred Blows, 1959), aged fourteen. Léaud would go on to star in three more features (and a short) based on the same character, a series of films collectively called the Adventures of Antoine Doinel, spanning some twenty years of his actual life – a unique cinematic achievement. Léaud went on to work with such acclaimed directors as Godard, Rivette, Varda, Pasolini, Skolimowski and Bertolucci throughout the 60s and 70s; a veritable who's who of European arthouse filmmakers.

In I Hired a Contract Killer, Léaud fills the shoes of the – usually Finnish – Kaurismaki hero amiably, a typically marginal and alienated character in a dead-end job. Leaud's alienation isn't helped by his living in an alien city, London. Indeed, even native residents might not recognise their city, partly due to Kaurismaki's trademark film noir lighting and use of bold colours, but mainly because the city looks almost post-war with piles of rubble, empty shops and derelict buildings. Presumably filmed mostly around the Docklands of East London, it's the cranes dominating the skyline that give the game away: the film takes place during the massive redevelopment of the area. Stanley Kubrick had filmed Full Metal Jacket to replicate war-torn Vietnam in the same part of London several years previously. It's doubtful that many of the locations used in either film are still standing.

The sense of alienation is further enhanced by the soundtrack, consisting mainly of old American songs (including several by Billie Holiday) whose lyrics seem to echo the characters situations. Even a cameo by quintessential Londoner Joe Strummer, here performing a song in a pub, has lyrics full of American references, as well as a picture of Elvis hanging on the wall behind him.

Strummer's last film performance had been the previous year in Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train, where he gets repeatedly called Elvis. Jarmusch and Kaurismaki have a lot in common: both make stylised yet low-key films with minimal dialogue, a dark sense of humour and eclectic use of music. Jarmusch himself has a cameo in Leningrad Cowboys Go America (his haircut alone must have got him the role) and in Night on Earth he uses regular Kaurismaki actors. Jarmusch's most recent film, The Limits of Control, has John Hurt's character reference a Finnish film based on the La Bohéme. It is of course Kaurismaki's La Vie de Bohème.

At almost two hours, I found The Limits of Control a struggle to sit through; the great thing about Kaurismaki's films is they're rarely over 80 minutes long.

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