"Lights in the Dusk" finds veteran Finnish helmer Aki Kaurismaki treading water with an amiable but very undercooked noirish fable about a security guard done wrong by a femme fatale. Pic, on theme of loneliness, reps last part of a loose trilogy begun by "Drifting Clouds" and continued in "The Man Without a Past," which, like this, competed in Cannes. Already pre-sold to a slate of territories, "Lights" is likely to twinkle briefly then fade faster than previous Kaurismaki pics at B.O., going on to produce a low-wattage glow on ancillary.
Loner Koiskinen (Janne Hyytiainen) works as a night watchman for a Helsinki security firm. Teased by his colleagues because of his lack of a g.f., Koiskinen leads a life of quiet routine. Every night he stops in for sausages at a mobile grill van run by Aila (Maria Heiskanen), who discloses in one subtle private expression that she carries a torch for Koiskinen.
One day, blonde bombshell Mirja (feline-eyed Maria Jarvenhelmi) makes a beeline for Koiskinen in an empty cafe. Within minutes of meeting her, he proposes marriage, but she gently suggests they try going out on a few dates first, first to a movie and then to see rock band Melrose.
Turns out Mirja is in the pay of by shady businessman Lindholm (Ilkka Koivula), who is setting Koiskinen up as the fall guy in a heist. She sneaks a peek at the access codes Koiskinen uses for the shopping mall where he does his nightly rounds, and then one evening slips him a Mickey Finn so Lindholm's associates can swipe the rocks from a jewelry store.
Koiskinen, who pic establishes is nice to dogs and therefore a saint in Kaurismaki's universe, chivalrously refuses to rat on Mirja even though he knows he's been set up. He's sent to prison for two years.
Last act finds Koiskinen on early release, now destitute and trying to reintegrate with society, but the poor sucker can't get an even break. Film ends abruptly on a long, Bressonian close-up with Koiskinen professing hope even as tragedy looms.
Although there's plenty of grace notes to sustain interest over "Lights" super-slim 77-minute running time, a certain lassitude sets in from the start and builds the impression that helmer is running on autopilot here. Kaurismaki's self-penned script feels more bitter than usual, and even the amusing deadpan miserablism of his dialogue lacks the punch, fluency and poignancy found in helmer's previous work, particularly his masterly "The Man Without a Past."
Even cinephile Kaurismaki's deployment of film allusions to silent-era melodramas and film noir in general and, via Jarvenhelmi's upswept platinum 'do and dark suit, Hitchcock's "Vertigo," feels a bit routine.
Thesps are all generally fine given their remit is basically to say their lines and hit their marks with a minimum of expression. Most are new faces Kaurismaki hasn't worked with before, although Hyytiainen cropped up before in "Man Without a Past" and Kaurismaki's short for "Ten Minutes Older: The Trumpet."
Problem may be helmer overstretching himself with too many production roles, particularly in the editing department where absence of Kaurismaki's usual snipper, Timo Linnasalo, is felt. Even over pic's lean length, it sometimes feels padded out with too many twilight establishing shots of Helsinki, while long takes where nothing happens and seem sustained only to allow songs to run their course feel self-indulgent rather than magical.
At least typically rich lensing by regular collaborator Timo Salminen consistently compels. Using gels and spots to create intense hues, Salminen's shots unfold in a series of striking tableaux and slyly allude frequently to the oft-quoted compositions by painter Edward Hopper. Production design serves up Kaurismaki's usual mid-20th century retro look.
Camera (color), Timo Salminen; production designer, Markku Patila; costumes, Outi Harjupatana; sound (Dolby Digital), Jouko Lumme, Tero Malmberg. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 22, 2006. Running time: 77 MIN.