I'm not one for giving away the twists that a film has to offer, but it seems only fair to warn you about a scene near the end of Lights in the Dusk, the new comedy from the Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki. We've spent almost an hour in the company of Koistinen (Janne Hyytiäinen), a Helsinki security guard with slicked-back hair and the kind of doleful expression usually seen only in police mugshots. In that time, he has been beaten up, betrayed, drugged, sacked, humiliated, framed for a crime he didn't commit and incarcerated. That's when he does something both inappropriate and dramatically out of character: he bursts out laughing. See, I told you it was shocking.
Merriment in an Aki Kaurismäki film has the same effect as an explosion or an act of violence has in conventional cinema - it makes you sit up and gasp. There's never any shortage of mirth in the audience, where we appreciate Koistinen as a put-upon, weather-beaten sad-sack in the tradition of Buster Keaton, W C Fields or Bill Murray. On-screen, however, the characters receive with silent gratitude whatever arbitrary punishments fate dishes out to them, as though they expect as much and are simply relieved not to be disappointed.
What gives Kaurismäki's films their delightful tension is the tug-of-war between this apparent miserabilism and the surges of hope that disrupt the dour surface. Lights in the Dusk is like the emotional equivalent of an optical illusion: the glass that appears to be half empty is shown, by the end of the picture, to be overflowing with the milk, or rather the vodka, of human kindness.
Take Koistinen, who refuses to relinquish his bizarre idea that life will get better, even when faced with all the evidence to the contrary. He is despised by his workmates, who look like the sort of men who contribute to the Readers' Wives sections of pornographic magazines. He is oblivious to the attentions of Aila (Maria Heiskanen), who works on a fast-food stall and wears overalls the same shade of orange as her hot dogs.When Koistinen does manage to get a girlfriend - Mirja (Maria Järvenhelmi), who resembles a waxwork model of Jessica Lange - it's not his heart that she is after so much as the security code for the jewellery store that's on his beat.
Yet still there is a light behind Koistinen's sad blue eyes, even when he's holed up in a Helsinki hostel for former prisoners while the mobsters who had him put away conspire to wreck his prospects further.
Much of the optimism of Lights in the Dusk comes from the lush music, from Puccini to tango, and the vivid colours used to counterpoint the downturn in Koistinen's fortunes. In his cramped apartment, he hangs his socks on a makeshift washing line over the stove, but the walls around him are painted a sumptuous red. When he receives a "No" from the bank manager (what he actually says is "Go away") after applying for a loan, Kaurismäki cuts to a glorious golden sky stretching out over Helsinki, as though alerting us to some mysterious triumph in this rejection.
Each unappealing bar, café and diner is given an Edward Hopperesque glow. Even the prison is decorated like a boutique hotel, with the lower floor decked out in striking tangerine and the upper level a woozy lime green. The film's pleasures owe much to the production design by Markku Pätilä, clearly a name to remember if you're looking to spruce up a mausoleum or abattoir in the near future.
Lights in the Dusk is short by modern standards, clocking in at less than 80 minutes. And it is even more subdued in tone, and frugal in execution, than its predecessors in what Kaurismäki calls his "Loser" trilogy: Drifting Clouds (1996) and his finest film, The Man Without a Past (2002). What it does have, though, is a touching final shot to inspire faith in mankind - or at least in modern cinema - as well as more deadpan laughs than there are umlauts in the cast and crew list.
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