François Truffaut’s classic first film, The 400 Blows, ends on a beach. Antoine Doinel (played by Jean-Pierre Léaud, who must have been about 14 when the film was shot) has just run away from a borstal in the middle of a game of football. The film leaves him at the edge of the water, facing the camera, with the sea stretching towards the horizon in the background. The worst crime Antoine has committed is stealing a typewriter, and, despite his loveless home and the stultifyingly rigid school system confronting him, the film’s final freeze-image allows us to believe in his future. The open ocean behind him symbolizes the undecided openness of his life.
Like Antoine, 14-year-old Simo, the main character of Concrete Night, is drawn to the sea – in his dreams, as well as in reality. But in Finnish director Pirjo Honkasalo’s film there are no open horizons, only the cold, dark and dirty waters of a harbour, surrounded by steel bridges, cranes, factory buildings and abandoned warehouses. It is a moat, enveloping Simo’s prison-like concrete Helsinki suburb, where even the sandbox is surrounded by three-meter fences. As Simo and a friend climb on machinery in the harbour we get the feeling that, should they fall, they will not only fall into the water, but off the edge of the earth, into the abyss – like the train crashing down from an imploding bridge in the film’s opening dream sequence.
Thus, even if Johannes Brotherus (the debutant actor playing Simo) uncannily resembles a young Jean-Pierre Léaud, Simo has more in common with a very different troubled young boy from the history of European art cinema (a tradition into which Pirjo Honkasalo confidently, as well as somewhat anachronistically, inscribes her film). I’m thinking about 13-year-old Edmund Kohler in Roberto Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero (1948).
Edmund Kohler is driven to perdition in a bombed-out Berlin, haunted by hunger and the ghosts of Nazism. Similarly, Simo is a victim of material circumstances in combination with the lethal philosophical banalities of our, politically and socially, decadent era. A victim of his historical heritage, that is.
Honkasalo’s film follows Simo during a life-changing, life-shattering 24 hours, as we witness the catastrophic life-lessons his surrounding adults bestow on him. There’s his older brother, Ilkka, who is to start serving a prison sentence for a minor drug conviction the next day. Ilkka teaches Simo that the only thing he has to fear is hope. All hope is false. Humanity will soon have put an end to itself and to most other life forms on the planet as well. Only the scorpions will survive the apocalypse. But if you have no hope you’re strong. And one more thing, always beat women. They like it. Only beat men if you have to. It’s Social-Darwinism at the end of humanity’s road. Tough love. No mollycoddling for a young generation that needs to learn that life is what it is and can’t be changed. So, get with the program. Had Ilkka been middle class, rather than lumpenproletarian, he would have gone to university and learned to write books about anti-social behaviour and the moral decline of the working class youth.
Then there’s the mother. Single. Perhaps an alcoholic. She is Ilkka’s opposite. If reality doesn’t work for you there’s always dreams and illusions. You are only as old as you feel. She tells her neighbours she’s going to Rhodes, then hides in the apartment.
Finally we have “the faggot next door.” A well-dressed, middle-aged photographer, who listens to opera and sings in the church choir. Something of a stereotype, who comes home late at nights in a taxi. He tries to seduce Simo with a mixture of Eastern mysticism, aestheticized hedonism and New Age. Life is simple. Problems, negativity, fear don’t exist in reality. They exist only in us. Free yourself. It’s theology of prosperity with an artificial touch of social criticism here and there, just for flavour. He wants to take pictures of Simo half undressed wearing a wreath of flowers.
Concrete Night is based on a thirty-year-old novel written by Pirjo Honkasalo’s life partner Pirkko Saisio, who has also co-written the script with the director. Honkasalo has filmed it beautifully in black and white images. The strong, dramatic contrasts – where light is constantly trying to break through the darkness, but seldom manages to create more than fleeting glimmers – reinforce the feeling of confinement.
In Concrete Night, the port city is no longer a meeting place between peoples and cultures, as it still is in Honkasalo’s countryman Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre (2011) for instance. Here it is reduced to a symbol of a faceless production system that grows at our expense; a globalization that simultaneously crowds us out and fences us in, pushing the individual into ever smaller cages of powerlessness, situated ever closer to the edge. Human freedom has become as limited as the football court on Simo’s housing estate, fenced in just like the sandbox – so different from the wide grass field in the rural idyll where Antoine Doinel and his comrades played more than fifty years ago.
Football in a cage – a perfect recipe for building aggression. Until someone just has to fight their way out, by any means. Someone like Simo. Only, there is no outside anymore. There’s nowhere to run for Simo, who can only return to where it all began, the cramped flat in the cramped estate. We have come full circle. We are back among the ideological ruins of a decayed Europe.
Daniel Lindvall is editor-in-chief of Film International.