Oh, to be a starving artist in Paris with a loving mistress, a dog named Baudelaire and good, equally broke, artist friends. La Vie de Bohème
honors this romantic notion to the hilt, while simultaneously mocking its illusions and pretensions. The movie can't help itself, it's written, produced and directed by Aki Kaurismäki (Leningrad Cowboys Go America, The Match Factory Girl),
a Finnish filmmaker who makes dysfunctional comedies that are as disturbingly bleak as they are wickedly funny. Freely based on Henri Murger's mid-19th century novel Scènes de la vie de Bohème
(which also forms the basis of Puccini's opera La Bohème),
the movie follows the lives of three artist friends and one's tubercular girlfriend Mimi. Shot in black-and-white with dialogue in pidgin French, Kaurismäki sets the story in a contemporary Paris that looks little different from that of a century ago and paunches up the characters so that these artistes
never look too starving or too young, merely bohemianly disheveled. Rodolpho (Pellonpää) is an Albanian painter deported for lack of working papers. Marcel (Wilms) is a writer who, in his opening scene, becomes offended by a publisher's suggestion that he change a single thing about his 21-act play. Schaunard (Väänänen) is a composer whose music has him plucking on piano strings and making other weird sounds. Rodolpho's beloved is Mimi (Didi), a woman in love with the starving artist myth until there's no more old poetry left in the apartment to burn for winter fuel. Jean-Pierre Léaud shows up in a hilarious turn as a novice art collector; Sam Fuller appears briefly as a publisher who foolishly gives Marcel an advance and the keys to an office to publish a magazine and Louis Malle surfaces as a gentleman diner. The artistes
have no concerns more immediate than finding their next meal and drink or finding presentable jackets to wear to interviews. Immediate gratification and loyalty to lofty aesthetic notions are the only satisfactions they seek. They live in a world bounded by the musical backdrops of Tchaikovsky and Little Willie John. The charm of La Vie de Bohème
is that it manages to satirize and valorize its heroes all at once.