There is a sort of checklist for Finnish films — and I say this with love — that includes snowy exteriors, bleakly austere interiors, ice fishing and someone getting murdered with an axe. The Woodcutter Story ticks every box, plus a few more. Characters who barely speak, for example — and who may, indeed, have nothing to say. When they do, there is a jolting humor that may not be humor at all: their deadpan delivery gives nothing away. This is the Finnish way.
Director/writer Mikko Myllylahti — a poet who also penned the script for Juho Kuosmanen’s The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki, which won a major prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2016 — sets his Cannes Critics’ Week title in an unnamed village in the far north of Finland clustered around a timber mill. Myllylahti’s hero Pepe is a timber worker, played by the same actor who brought such humanity to Olli Maki, Jarkko Lahti.
Pepe is a radiant innocent, beloved by all. When we first meet him, it is in the dismal village bar, where everyone has gathered for his birthday and, much to his amazement, collected a large sum of money as a gift. He immediately announces that the drinks are on him. Pepe is kind; he is never angry; he is cheerful and, as it transpires, can survive seemingly any misfortune with his good humor intact.
There is not much to do in the endless Nordic night when it’s nobody’s birthday: the villagers gather for cards, go ice fishing or — as we will discover — entertain themselves with unlikely sexual liaisons. When a so-called “psychic singer” brings his traveling show to town and claims to be able to warble his way through to the dead, everyone turns up. It’s a diversion. It may also shed light on the meaninglessness of existence, which is what the men discuss in the bar when they speak at all. “The life we’re living feels meaningful to us, but it’s just an illusion,” says one. “It’s terrifying to think that nothing matters.” This is social comedy as written by Kierkegaard.
The Woodcutter Story is also deeply melancholy, strange and surreal. A ball of light might appear from nowhere and just as suddenly explode, taking Pepe’s son with it. A car in flames inexplicably drifts down the highway. We have glimpses of a mysterious, snuffling beast. And who are the characters who, in a spectacular but puzzling preface, argue in a mountaintop hut about the deluge of misery already decreed for these decent villagers, who clearly don’t deserve it? Perhaps they are gods — albeit not of the usual Nordic kind, given that one carries a briefcase.
Misery duly rains down on the villagers. The timber mill closes suddenly, leaving everyone without work and Pepe’s best friend Tuoma in despair. There are deaths, including the aforementioned axe murder. Pepe gets the worst of it, but keeps bouncing back in his bright red and white ski suit — the only strong color in a film dominated by shades of snow — like an optimistic elf. Myllilahti has said he based Pepe on a real person. The character’s resilience is his primary theme, although you’d have to assume that the meaninglessness of existence comes a close second.
You can also sense the guiding spirit of Finnish maestro Aki Kaurismaki in the quirkiness of The Woodcutter Story, along with its whiffs of Bunuel’s surrealism. It is less expansive, however, than Kaurismaki’s more recent films — despite the very expansive, spectacular images of mountains and frozen lakes — with less sense of greater human possibility. There is a lot of plot, but there are stretches where those twists flatten out into a sort of sameness as one weird blip follows another. And the unexplained oddities don’t always sit well with the story of this community, although the oddest thing of all — the ending, not to be revealed — is unexpectedly satisfying. More than anything, though, I love Myllylahti’s cavalier boldness. He’s seen a vivid, peculiar story and just gone for it. He’s one to watch.
Cannes Review: Mikko Myllylahti’s ‘The Woodcutter Story’