A hilarious and harrowing exercise in marriage prevention, Mika Kaurismaki’s “The House of Branching Love” has been described as a Finnish “War of the Roses,” but that’s selling it short. Divorce may be at the comedy’s chewy center, but there’s a catalog’s worth of unlikely characters, odd coincidences, venomous exchanges and lustful antics galloping through what is probably Kaurismaki’s most polished production — a departure from the dry, droll, low-tech fare for which he’s better known. Stateside distribution will be tough, but adult themes and ribald humor could sell it, as could thesp Anna Easteden, a highly exportable Finnish resource.
Pic has performed well in Finland, where it opened at the top of the box office on Aug. 21 and has since drawn more than 50,000 admissions.
When a Helsinki hooker falls out a window, it sets off a chain of events that don’t immediately seem to have any connection to marriage therapist and balding butterball Juhani (Hannu-Pekka Bjorkman) or his wife Tuula (Elina Knihtila), both of whom think they’re going to inhabit the same house while going through their civilized divorce. Nothing could be further, etc. Egged on by his preening friend, the aptly named Pekka (Tommi Eronen), the newly free Juhani picks up a woman at a bar and brings her home, setting off Tuula like a Roman candle and letting us know that nothing particularly civilized is going to be happening within the Tuula/Juhani household.
To say that this movie is complicated is an understatement; by comparison, “The Big Sleep” was a coloring book. Tuula’s mother, Yrsa (Kati Outinen) is queen bee of a prostitution ring for which Juhani’s stepbrother, Wolffi (Antti Reini), works; when that hooker falls out the window, her colleague Nina (Easteden) takes off with a pile of cash intended for Yrsa, who wants it back. When Juhani decides to hire a woman to play his girlfriend after Tuula takes up with a good-looking pilot (Ilkka Villi), Wolffi presents Juhani with Nina — who actually falls in love with the big goof, which should give hope to fat men everywhere.
The increasingly prolific Kaurismaki has made a kitchen-sink comedy, Finnish style, in which one of the real gems is veteran actress Outinen, the star of so many movies made by Kaurismaki’s brother Aki. These include “Drifting Clouds,” in which Outinen played opposite Kari Vaananen, who plays her ex husband here (shout-outs to Aki may include the character Juhani; it was Juhani Aho who wrote the novel “Juha,” the basis for the Finnish silent classic remade by Aki in 1999). Outinen, mistress of the impassive countenance masking the smoldering soul, is hilarious without even trying.
“The House of Branching Love” (many branches, not much love) is a rare thing, a domestic comedy/underworld thriller in which there’s no end of people following other people: Two blond cops on the trail of Wolffi, and then Juhani, turn out to be a couple who lost a child and came to Juhani for counseling. A related plot bombshell strikes the one off-key note in what is otherwise a broad, loud, comically vulgar but mostly cohesive movie that may be creating its own genre. One question: Was there supposed to be an ad for the Finnish lottery at the beginning of the print?
Production values are first-rate.