Kaurismäki’s “Hamlet Goes Business” Takes the Bard Into Bizarro Territory

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Aki Kaurismäki’s films were bizarro before bizarro became a thing. I can think of no other auteur who has done for the motion picture what authors like Kevin L. Donihe have done for alternative fiction—consummately married the mundane to the peculiar.

If there’s one thing that our readers will find appealing about Hamlet Goes Business, a film that could otherwise be summarized as a black-and-white arthouse melodrama, it’s the depths to which it goes to highlight the absurdity of ole Anonymous‘s play.

The high contrast black-and-white photography feels less like an homage to Shakespearean theater and more like a tip of the hat to Kafka fans who have relished cinema’s adaptations of the same (think Orson Welles’ production of The Trial). Indeed, the entire film feels less like a Shakespeare tragedy and more like an exercise in lampooning industrialism and Capitalism, and the people responsible for both.

Where the play starts out with two watchmen convincing Hamlet’s friend, Horatio, to stand watch with them so as to catch sight of the King’s ghost, Hamlet Goes Business opens on a tight shot of a puppy yapping, his cries falling on deaf ears.

Instead of the Prince’s friend becoming convinced that a specter spells bad things for the future of Denmark, Kaurismäki’s story finds Klaus (the Claudius character of the Shakespeare text) poisoning the King before sucking face with the widow Gertrude in a shot yanked straight out of Gone with the Wind.

In a first act reveal that would have likely drawn belly laughs from John Kennedy Toole, Prince Hamlet himself (played sublimely by Pirkka-Pekka Petelius) is shown to be a paunchy, greasy-haired brat.

The other men populating this adaptation are profoundly dense, their actions motivated by the basest of fears and desires. An early scene involving ham is laugh-out-loud funny but, also, symbolic of the flick’s central theme—man’s voracious appetite for amassing things. Wealth describes not only money but anything that can be horded and/or devoured.

As Polonius (Esko Nikkari) explains early on, the porky prince has the controlling shares of the family company with the rest belonging to the banks. Polonius takes for granted that Prince Hamlet will be too stupid to object to a modest allowance in lieu of a promotion. It’s his firm belief that the little bastard is so dumb that he won’t realize that the role of company president is his birthright.

At the King’s funeral, Klaus tells Hamlet that he has something he wants to show him. The next very abridged sequence is introduced by an intertitle reading, “Satan and Jesus on the Mountain.” It consists solely of Klaus showing the prince around the company’s factory as if introducing him to the nuts and bolts of Capitalism.

The intertitle seems to suggest that Klaus is the Devil, tempting the son with the fruits of other people’s labor. It’s a captivating metaphor, particularly in what is an otherwise pretty silly film. That Hamlet is then quite literally thrust upon Ofelia (Kaurismäki perennial Kati Outinen), the daughter of a “good family,” furthers this rather blunt metaphor.

The Finnish director behind this short and defiantly sloppy re-imagining is fond of calling his films dog shit, pointing out that they are failures when held up against the works which inspired them. In Kaurismäki’s eyes, even his masterworks—the Oscar-nominated ‘Man Without a Past‘ and his faithfully rendered film of La Vie de Boheme—are garbage compared to the Art of Bresson’s Mouchette or Ozu’s Tokyo Story.

Many would read the director’s comments as self-deprecation, but that’s only if you aren’t hip to the artist’s rather wicked sense of humor. This is the same guy who jarred David Lynch at Cannes by allegedly whispering, “Who are you?”

Silly and haphazard as much of Hamlet Goes Business is, it’s still a cinematic marvel and a well-crafted one at that. As a filmmaker notorious for his economy with dialogue, Kaurismäki never fails to deliver sparse lines that fester in one’s brain. Example:

[After rebutting Hamlet’s advances, Ofelia sits, slouched, on the bed, staring up at him timidly.]

Ofelia: You know I can’t. Not before marriage.

Hamlet: That’s blackmail, darling.

[Moments later, Hamlet advances towards her again, this time to the sort of melodramatic strings of a Douglas Sirk film.]

Ofelia: No, don’t. We’d both regret it afterwards.

Hamlet: That’s what you think.

Ofelia: What did you say?

Hamlet: Leave me now. I promised to dine with my mother.

[Ofelia gets up to leave as Hamlet exhales cigarette smoke and broods. As she leaves, Hamlet turns off the source of the melodramatic music—a reel-to-reel recorder—and turns to a vintage jukebox sitting against the wall of his bedroom.]

The mise-en-scène here is a key component of Kaurismäki’s signature brand of bizarro. On one level, it can be read as a meta-fictional detail bordering on parody, but on another it’s representative of the anachronisms that make his films so unique. I dare any viewer to name another artist working in motion pictures who better juxtaposes such incongruous elements.

After Ofelia leaves, Hamlet kicks the jukebox in anger, compelling it to skip to a 45” whose chorus commands, “Hush! Hush! You’re talkin’ too much.”

Unlike much of the 69-year old’s ouevre, Hamlet Goes Business was not well-received here in America. Of the few reviews that one can dig up on the Internet, nearly all of them agree that the flick is short, stilted and anything but representative of Kaurismäki at the height of his powers.

This strikes me as hilarious since the picture shares so much in common with an American film that suffered the same critical fate upon its release. There are aspects here that will call to mind The Hudsucker Proxy, a screwball comedy directed by the Coen Brothers and co-written by Sam Raimi (Evil Dead, A Simple Plan).

The most obvious similarities are the the ridiculously long dinner table and Polonius’s central hypothesis that Hamlet will be too stupid to succeed. It’s worth noting, however, that The Hudsucker Proxy didn’t come out until 1994, a full five years after ‘Hamlet‘ was released on our Shores.

Like the Coen Brothers, Kaurismäki has an affinity for the village idiot, a character that often propels his narratives forward (see: Leningrad Cowboys Go America). In ‘Hamlet,’ it is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who are the big, dumb goons while Kaurismäki’s favorite male lead, the late-Matti Pellonpää (Ariel, Night on Earth), fills the ancillary role of The Guard (a conglomeration of the three guardsmen from the Shakespeare text).

The Guard and his young ward are obviously simpletons of the sort that are often found in the periphery of a Coen Brothers flick. Think Steve Buscemi’s Donnie in The Big Lebowski or Ryan Hurst’s Lump Hudson from their 2004 remake of The Ladykillers.

This correlation drew itself in my mind when I was less than a quarter of the way into Hamlet Goes Business. And the more I dwelt upon it, the more it made sense. For all of the credit that we give the Coen Brothers for their signature style, it’s impossible not to see Kaurismäki’s work in almost everything of theirs.

The way that Hamlet gobbles a thick slice of ham over his father’s dead body reminds one of nothing so much as George Clooney’s Harry Pfarrer messily gobbling hors d’oeuvres in Burn After Reading. Just when this theory begins to feel far-fetched, ask yourself what made Fargo, the Coens’ 1996 original film, so “original.”

At the time, cosmopolitan American audiences were widely unfamiliar with that distinctly Scandinavian Midwest populated by pregnant police officer Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) and loser car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy). What’s more, the laconic deadpan humor typical of Scandinavian countries was foreign to their ears.

It was this deadpan comedy and the way that the Coens portrayed Minnesota as a bleak winter tundra that got American viewers’ attention. Here was something that was rather eccentric and undoubtedly one-of-a-kind…except it wasn’t.

One could easily picture the Coens’ silent, stone-faced killer, Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Storemare), meeting one of Pellonpää’s sad sack working class characters at a pub in Kaurismäki’s Loser Trilogy (Shadows in Paradise, Ariel, The Match Factory Girl). And that bleak winter tundra has been well-represented in the auteur’s canon, from Ariel all the way up to Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses.

This is not to slight the exceptionally talented Coens in any way, simply to state for posterity that the Finns did it first, Kaurismäki in particular. Here we are given one of the most indescribably odd adaptations of any classic volume. It’s equal parts Orson Welles drama and Three Stooges-style slapstick.

The incongruity I mentioned earlier pops up again when we arrive at one of the director’s perpetual live music sequences. Here it’s a raw punk rock performance of “Rich Little Bitch” by Melrose, one of Lapland’s greatest bands, whose rhythm section consists of a spiky-haired kid with a giant stand-up bass.

While most reviewers are probably right when they say that Hamlet Goes Business is an imperfect film, they neglect the fact that it is still head and shoulders above the hackneyed productions of Hamlet that are rolled out on the stages of International theaters on a near-constant basis. If there’s one thing going for it it’s the director’s obvious restlessness with the source material.

The resulting picture succeeds by virtue of its almost perverse refusal to acknowledge the play’s underlying concerns. The preternatural relationship between Prince Hamlet and his mother is reduced here to a throwaway line of dialogue that reduces the heir’s Oedipal complex to nothing more than the co-dependence of any sexless geek.

If it’s not a masterwork on the order of the director’s later port city stories (La Havre and The Other Side of Hope) then it’s definitely a worthy sizzle reel, demonstrating Kaurismaki’s knack for rendering the boring wildly compelling. If nothing else, it’s surely a worthy stocking stuffer for someone who loathes the Bard.

If you’re familiar with the Shakespeare play then you already know this one doesn’t end well, at least not historically. But in Hamlet Goes Business nothing goes according to plan. Don’t be surprised if the film’s ending finds you smiling. This is just part of what makes it so bizarre.

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