Sunday, February 3, 2008

Land of the Midnight Sauna: Part One

SKIN, SKIN / K/Spy sel/Sn alla
(Mikko Niskanen, 1966, Finland, 35mm, 89 mins.)


The Finnish word sisu means resilience and survival under difficult circumstances. In shorthand, it's often translated as "guts," and is regarded as a characteristic Finnish trait.
-- From the introduction to Sisu Cinema: Nine from the Finnish New Wave


In regarding the Finnish New Wave, it's tempting to look for antecedents to Aki Kaurism/Ski's pitch-black comic style. On the basis of Mikko Niskanen's Skin, Skin (1966) and Eight Deadly Shots (1972), however-I've also seen J/drn Donner's Sixtynine 69 and Anna-Kaurism/Ski's miserablist masterworks, like Drifting Clouds (1996) and The Man Without a Past (2002), seem more idiosyncratic than ever.

To be sure, humor abounds in Skin to Skin, AKA Skin, Skin, but it isn't brushed with blackness, while Eight Deadly Shots is downright Bressonian in its tragic trajectory; humor isn't part of the equation at all. Only six years separate the two, but they couldn't have less in common, and feel like the products of separate sensibilities. (The NWFF will also be screening Niskanen's Song of the Scarlet Flower from 1971.)

In the director's first entry, two college-age couples set up camp by the seaside
in order to get to know each other-and themselves-better. (Anna, starring Don-
ner's Swedish wife Harriet Andersson, also takes place by the shore; unfortunate-
ly, there are no more screenings of Anna and Sixtynine 69.) Based on their skittish behavior, Skin, Skin's female protagonists would appear to be virgins, while their boyish suitors are more experienced-about sex, not the ways of the world.
Boisterous brunette Riita (Kristiina Halkola) reminds her companions of Claudia Cardinale-an understandable observation-while circumspect blonde Leena (Kirsti Wallasvaara) evokes Brigitte Bardot (particularly once she dons her newsboy cap).
The men also seem familiar, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Spontaneous
Jean-Pierre Leaud type Timo (Pekka Autiovuori), a medic whose skills will come
in handy, wears spectacles. His brooding companion, Santtu (Eero Melasniemi, Hal-
kola's spouse), cops a Rebel without a Cause attitude and shaggy hairstyle, indicat-
ing a less conformist outlook (either that, or he's more attuned to '60s fashions).
As Sakari Toiviiainen notes in "New Finnish Cinema," "The main characters...cor-
responded to the image youth had of itself, but equally to the image the parents had: their characterisation was so general that they were like products of the adver-
tising and debate being directed towards them, that is, they behaved more like 'young' than individuals." He adds that the film was "an enormous success."
During the picture, the women sing a few songs, all sounding like Finnish variations on the French chanson-there's also a chic singer/actress on holiday (Anneli Sauli), who performs a number during the pivotal dancehall scene-but Skin, Skin isn't a musical. It's more like a sex comedy; an introspective pastoral miles removed from the urban insanity of Donner's Sixtynine 69 with its human-and canine-coupling.
Despite a few jump cuts here and there, the results more closely resemble a
pre-Vietnam-era American independent rather than a Scandinavian version of the nouvelle vague. These attractive young people have carnal relations on their minds rather than-or in addition to-politics. They're also concerned about their futures, but only in the most general sense, i.e. Riita wants to settle down, Santtu doesn't.
If Skin, Skin sounds light, that's because it is, but it's also entertaining, erotic,
and well worth catching on the big screen (DVD isn't an option). Maybe Finland's
"sauna culture" helps to explain it, but there's as much casual nudity in these movies-naked bathing figures in Sixtynine 69, while abundant skinny-dipping decorates Anna-as hard alcohol. Which is to say: a bountiful bevy of both.
Next: Eight Deadly Shots
Sisu Cinema: Nine from the Finnish New Wave runs at the Northwest Film Forum
from 2/1-17. Curated by Adam Sekuler, Seattle is the only North American city to host the series. Skin, Skin plays on Fri. 2/8. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. on Capitol Hill between Pike and Pine. For more information, please click here or
call 206-329-2629. Images from the NWFF, Perjantai 1.9, and SEA: Esitykset.


  1. I agree that Timo was serving a Jean-Pierre Leaud function, but as far as physical resemblance goes, I couldn't look at him without seeing Eddie Deezen!

  2. Good point, although Pekka Autiovuori is better looking-"n a similarly geeky kind of way. I tried to think of the actor he most closely resembles, but couldn't come up with a name, even though there's something vaguely familiar about his visage. Eero Melasniemi, meanwhile, looks like a rock star, but I couldn't say which one (and his wife was actually the musical performer in the family).

  3. Every time the character took off his glasses, I lost the Eddie Deezen thing, as the actor is quite handsome--but then that plaid, short-pants outfit he wears on their first visit to the farm, or his idea that everyone should walk like they had just "made" in their pants, and Eddie came right back.