Pirjo Honkasalo's black-and-white bummer drowns itself in self-conscious style.
In 2004, the Finnish director Pirjo Honkasalo made a soulful, stylized documentary laying bare the toll taken by the Chechnya war on children on all sides of the conflict. Among its other virtues, the devastating “The 3 Rooms of Melancholia” showed how human misery could be aestheticized without overwhelming the source material. Would that the same could be said of Honkasalo’s new narrative feature, which is also Finland’s foreign-language Oscar entry. The director began her career as a gifted cinematographer, and the black-and-white polish of “Concrete Night” is as sleek and lovely as it was in “3 Rooms.” But this mawkish bummer about an ill-used teenage boy wandering around a surreally forbidding Helsinki is marred by a facile nihilism that trivializes the urban alienation it seeks to illuminate.
In a recurring nightmare, Simo (Johannes Brotherus), a 14-year-old with a sweet, open face, swims around an underwater train car, desperately looking for exits. The reality to which he awakens is only marginally less hopeless. Simo lives in a cramped public housing project with his alternately neglectful and manipulative mother (Anneli Karppinen) and Illka (Jari Virman), the troubled big brother he looks up to for lack of other viable role models.
On a weekend night before Jari “goes inside,” the two brothers wander around a Finnish capital self-consciously drenched in noir tropes. In their encounters with druggies, enforcers, Illka’s masochistic girlfriend, one excruciatingly stereotyped gay predator and the traumatized dreamlife inside Simo’s head (where scorpions abound), the brothers both witness and collaborate on atrocities of accelerating brutality, all of them lovingly fussed over by an overbearingly poetic camera.
Adapted by Honkasalo with Pirrko Saisio from Saisio’s 1981 novel, the dialogue is riddled with warmed-over existentialist blather: “There is no tomorrow,” “The only thing in the world you should be afraid of is hope.” For all the movie’s contemporary updating, its cultural references feel oddly dated and derivative. The faces Simo meets on his journey through hell look like outtakes from early Fellini, and every new scene of depravity is flagged by an aria on the soundtrack. What are the odds that a teenager today would style his look after that blond guy in “The Deer Hunter”? With his creamy androgyny and eagerness to please, Simo looks more like a boarding-school freshman than a child of poverty and abuse, while his buffed sibling is surely the prettiest junkie in town.
Honkasalo clearly means to stand up for today’s forgotten and abused youth, while also probing the making of a psychopath. But where “The 3 Rooms of Melancholia” was firmly anchored in a complex reality that earned its despair, the overdetermined and excessively moisturized “Concrete Night” drowns us in style that barely papers over the slightness of its story. If you’re going to posit an irredeemably cheerless world, you can’t have your characters got up like extras from a One Direction concert movie.