What is an Auteur? Well the technical definition is a simply a filmmaker who has a singular recognisable vision, though you can guarantee they’ll also be a man as no women have been deemed important or visionary enough to become members of this elite club. As we all know, the singular vision of men is pretty much all that has been written about for basically you know … ever, so in this column I’ll be avoiding that completely and exploring the women of auteur film. The muses, the artistic partners, and the long suffering foils of these sometimes talented, often awful, and universally celebrated men.
The Women of Auteur Film: Kati Outinen
The idea of an auteur is often so intrinsically wrapped up with the connotations of arthouse cinema: serious, esoteric, dense, and often no fun. Pathologically dark and sincere, it’s rare to find a director who sits under the auteur banner who truly embraces humor within their movies. One of those who does it with resounding success and style is Aki Kaurismäki, and at the centre of many of his masterpieces is Kati Outinen, Kaurismäki’s regular collaborator. The pair worked together on ten films spanning two decades and a Grand Prix at Cannes Film Festival through the director’s own retirement. An adult life shared creating art, documented on film for the world to see.
Kati Outinen was born in Finland. Falling into acting by mistake, she wandered into a school drama club to support a friend and ended up staying after feeling like there “anything was possible”. Later she trained under the notorious Finnish controversialist Jouko Turkka—who gave many famous Finnish actors their start—as a drama student. The fact that Kati’s career was never defined by her mentor is startling in itself. She has never been considered a student of the turkkalaisuus school of acting, constantly creating her own path and finding a style of performance that quickly defined her as an engaging and vital presence.
I first came across Outinen in the Aki Kaurismäki movie The Man Without a Past, my late entry into Kaurismäki fandom, decades after she’d already made her mark in the radically before its time Täältä tullaan elämä (Right On Man!). It’s a vastly underrated—outside of Finland—youth movie about a close knit group of friends in a school for troubled children in the era of the country’s burgeoning punk scene. Beautiful and bleak, the movie is a proto Kids and Thirteen, breathing life into the adult world’s worst fears about youth culture, while also creating an honest commentary about the flaws of a society that claims to protect kids whilst universally ignoring and sidelining them. So raw that it often watches like a documentary, the authenticity and urgency of the film meant that Täältä tullaan elämä was a hit. Kati’s portrayal of the idealistic Lissa made her the breakout star of the movie, and it was only six years later that Kaurismäki sought her out to star in his film.
Aki Kaurismäki makes films that wallow in the mundane, focusing on the intricacies of human interaction and experience, whether that be on an interpersonal level or a global and political one. Kaurismäki’s films are an intimate experience, and Kati Outinen’s exposed and honest performances are the perfect foil for his inquisitive eye. With Shadows In Paradise, Kaurismäki and Outinen crafted a bleakly beautiful look at the most normal parts of a romantic entanglement. It was this starkly authentic film that began a creative collaboration which would last almost two decades.
Kati gave birth to her daughter at age 22, becoming a single mother just two years later. A young mother in the Finnish film industry was something that Kati took in stride. Years later she was horrified when working on a television series to discover that the young lead had been made to sign a contract promising she would not get pregnant. Kati’s father took a large part in caring for her daughter enabling her to pursue her burgeoning career.
The pair’s next film saw them tackling Shakespeare in Kaurismäki’s absurdist take on Hamlet. Hamlet Goes Business is one of the odder entries in Kaurismäki’s catalogue, a surreal black and white noir take on Shakespeare’s famous tragedy. The film cemented the pair’s collaboration and saw Kati take on the iconic role of Ofelia, turning a tragic figure into a grounded and realistic one in the centre of an experimental dream world.
With 1990’s The Match Factory Girl, Outinen and Kaurismäki created one of their most iconic and memorable works, a film that is often lauded as one of the best Finnish films ever made. An atmospheric and beautiful piece centered on a woman who after becoming pregnant by a wealthy one night stand becomes increasingly unhappy with her bleak existence. Darkly humourous and built almost exclusively on an unbelievably powerful, near silent central performance from Kati Outinen, the film was a huge success and was lauded by American critics like Roger Ebert. Outinen and Kaurismäki were being recognised and proving themselves as a force to be reckoned with.
Over the next decade Kati Outinen starred in over 15 films, including four more collaborations with Kaurismäki—a short film called Employment Agent, and a trio of the pair’s bleakest and less internationally recognized collaborations: Drifting Clouds, Juha, and Take Care of Your Scarf, Tatiana. This spiritual trilogy expands on the themes from Outinen and Kaurismäki’s earlier work, exploring longing, ennui, and the reality of relationships that often end in tragedy. Juha is one of the pair’s more experimental films, as it’s completely silent, with all dialogue printed on cards in between scenes. Intersecting in the messy place where respectability politics and misogyny meet, the film is essentially a parable about Marja (Kati Outinen) who falls in love with a stranger and leaves her husband only to be imprisoned in a brothel.
It’s really Kati Outinen’s work in the pair’s next collaboration for which she is best known. 2002’s The Man Without A Past brought both Kaurismäki and Outinen international acclaim once again, and was the film that reintroduced the pair to mainstream film fans. Nominated for an Oscar and the Palme D’or at Cannes, it won Outinen Best Actress as well as the Jury Prize. Overall it garnered 24 nominations internationally. Arguably a smash hit and one of the most successful foreign language films of 2002, the second part of Kaurismäki’s “Finland” trilogy tells the story of a man who wakes up in Helsinki with no memory and begins to rebuild his life out of a storage unit on the outskirts of town. Outinen’s work is a masterclass in subtle introspection, and she holds the film’s sparsity together with the most simple of glances.
The same year that The Man Who Wasn’t There was released Kati began a professorship at Teakissa, a prestigious acting academy. Outinen said she was inspired to take the professorship as she felt that students were lost and ignorant to the realities of the film industry, were she saw falling wages and exploited actors . She said she hoped to change things by working with her students to devise a more sustainable system that Outinen described as “less sinister.” She taught there for over ten years ending her tenureship in 2013.
Outinen continued to be just as prolific in the last fifteen years of her acting career, alongside her teaching. Working with Kaurismäki again on 2011’s Le Havre. Kati has over 66 movies to her name, building a portfolio as a talented character actress who’s a unique and powerful addition to any cast. Though Kaurismäki is the name that many know, without Outinen some of his most famous films would have surely never been.