The Cinematic Works: Elija-Liisa Ahtila

By Maximilian Le Cain

consolation-service-eija-liisa-ahtila.jpgConsolation Service, 1999

Going on the evidence of the BFI’s handsomely produced box set of Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s films, it would be hard to imagine a better introduction to her work than Me/We (1993). This jarring 90-second psychodrama plunges through a family situation in which the father’s voice speaks his own frustration through the mouths of other family members, culminating in a fantasy of his resitting his exams, and failing. Again and again in this seven film collection the viewer is presented with anecdotal narratives taken from reality and fragmented from the characters’ identities. Families and other groups speak with one voice or from one body; young teenage girls’ thoughts and experiences are broken up by urban space; invisible listeners crowd a marriage counsellor’s office… This is a cinema of schizophrenia, a subject which is overtly considered in the longest film of the collection, Love is a Treasure (2002).

me-we-ok-gray-eija-liisa-ahtila.jpgMe/We; Okay; Gray, 1993

The mood these movies evoke, for the most part, is one of hysterical anxiety. Me/We, along with its companion pieces Okay and Gray, draw explicitly on the form of the TV advertisement. Modelled on the brevity and repetition of ads, they were initially screened between commercials in both television and cinema contexts. Beyond these examples, all her work is stylistically indebted to advertising in its urgency to grab the spectator with visuals that impact immediately. These images seem geared to at once trigger a sense of generic pop-culture familiarity and to undermine that expectation with an instantly striking strangeness, the cause of which is often hard to immediately grasp. Her end seems to be not so much the subversion of advertising practices or aesthetics as the raising of their formal stakes by proving them illustratively adequate to the psychoses she dramatises.

While conceptually intriguing and sometimes effective, this approach to storytelling is not unproblematic. Although her subject matter is putatively intimate, the hyperbolic imagery coupled with the narrative fragmentation results in a curious displacement of her subjects from their own stories, notwithstanding that her technique might appear on paper to have resulted in a very subjective narrative. The centre of her films might be a voice that occupies several bodies; one body that spews multiple voices (Okay (1993)); or an event encircled by three experiences of it (Today, 1996/97). Yet rather than unifying these bodies/voices/events, the films abstract and depersonalise them, putting them at the service of a virtual self that fails to gel into a rounded subjectivity. In other words, the film might attempt to articulate a person’s most private experiences of the world but, in fact, there is no person and no world, just the articulation.

if-6-was-9-eija-liisa-ahtila.jpgIf 6 Was 9, 1995-96

This stems from the Ahtila's works stylistic affinity with advertising and its temporality. Like most commercials, her films function always in the present moment. Yet it is not a moment seized from time passing in the world but, rather, one whose existence is no more than a vehicle for a virtual image whose only concern is immediate impact. These pictures come from nowhere and go nowhere. When applied by Ahtila to character-based stories, this technique robs her subjects of time through which they can develop feelings or narratives. Not necessarily the traditional unfolding of narrative time on screen, but a sense of time existing outside of the limited moments the images are on screen. Thus the images have replaced the characters in their own stories and replaced those stories with a series of self-contained events that refer only to their own effect.

Theoretically, this sounds like a singularly effective formal device for conveying states of being that either verge on psychosis or are completely psychotic. In practice, it is apparent that all Ahtila has left to work with is the potency of her images unsupported by either reality or true subjectivity in narration. Yet these films remain doggedly linked to a pseudo-subjectivity and thus closed off from external ideas- this is what differentiates them from the great artificial cinema of Raoul Ruiz, for example.

love-is-a-treasure-eija-liisa-ahtila-montage.jpgLove is the Treasure, 2002

In working this way, Ahtila has left herself very little room to manoeuvre. The success of each film comes down to how much impact her images actually have and how long they can hold the attention. Thus her very short films are compellingly powerful, swiftly and violently hammering home their messages. The 23-minute Consolation Service, with its haunting scenes of drowning under ice, remains consistently surprising and stands out as the best work on the DVD. On the other hand, If 6 Was 9 (1996), a collage of young teenage girls’ ruminations on sexuality, employs images that render its material extremely banal. And initial excitement at the visual amplitude of Love is a Treasure (2002) soon gives way to tedium as it becomes apparent that it will never progress beyond a limited series of tricks. The question Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s films ultimately pose is whether her style constitutes a picture of human psychosis or an ugly symptom of cinema in a psychotic state. What is obvious is that these categories are not mutually exclusive.