I Hired a Contract Killer (1990)

Aki Kaurismäki, like all true film auteurs, creates worlds. Not in the sci-fi fantasy sense — though, I am not excluding sci-fi, merely broadening the concept — but in the subjective sense. Like Jarmusch, Fassbinder and Lynch, you get a feeling while watching a Kaurismäki movie that you are watching something highly personal. And so it goes with his odd and amusing love story, I Hired a Contract Killer, about a man who wants to kill himself but reconsiders after falling in love.

Roll your eyes and say you’ve seen that kind of movie before, but with Kaurismäki at the helm you get something genuinely touching, without forced pathos, incidental-music, or faux-inspirational endings. Starring Jean-Pierre Léaud, the French nouvelle vague star of such movies as American Night and 400 blows, IHCK moves us from Kaurismäki’s usual film location in Helsinki to London. Like the down-and-out squalor of Kaurismäki’s working class neighborhoods in Helsinki, the London depicted here isn’t the refined upper-class cosmopolis depicted in Woody Allen’s latest movies, rather it’s a drab, trash-strewn working class London full of thugs and hard-drinking wage slaves.

Jean-Pierre is plays a Frenchman named Henri, who was spent the las 15 years of his life working for the same boring English company. Because of financial difficulties, his job has become redundant, and “foreigners” are the first ones to get the ax. Distraught — for his rote day job was the only thing that kept him from self-reflection — Henri decides to kill himself. He attempts to hang himself, fails when the rope snaps; so he tries to gas himself, but a gas strike that day leaves him without gas. The next day he reads an article about hitmen operating in the city, and decides to hire a hitman to do the job.

He finds a lowdown bar in the roughest part of London and ridiculously goes to the bar and orders a ginger ale, much to the derision of the roughnecks around him. He announces, in his strong French accent, that “where I come from, veee eeet people like you for breakfast”. This seems to calm suspicions. He finally meets the underworld boss and hires a contract killer.

He spends the next hours anticipating his imminent death by constantly looking over his shoulder and providing clues for the hitman to find him. One such clue is a note on his front door, indicating that he has gone out for a pint in the bar across the street. The very night that the hitman is about to finish his job, he meets Margaret, a young women selling roses, and — in typically quirky Kaurismäki fashion — immediately falls in love. After barely evading the hitman that night, he decides to call off the job. So he goes back to the bar from where he hired him, and, rather hilariously, it has burned down.

This is probably the most Hitchcockian Kaurismäki has ever gotten, but it’s an amusing and suspenseful plot device. Henri and Margaret spend the rest of the movie one step ahead of the hitman, moving from her small apartment to a hotel, and finally with Henri going on the lamb when he finds himself unfairly implicated in a neighborhood hold up. Much like the characters in Jarmush’s Down by Law, Henri becomes an innocent man with just about everybody against him — and, like Jarmush, Kaurismäki manages to make all his characters endearing and subtly humorous. This great mashup of an absurd, Kafka-esque world, nearly-Hitchcockian suspense, and gentle humor, make this a not just a gangster movie parody, or a run-of-the mill love story, but truly, a movie with heart.

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