See, just when I was getting disillusioned a good film about straight people comes along. Maybe there is some worth in them. A Finnish film about a 1960s boxer’s training in the lead up to a world championship bout stealths its way into being the best love movie in a while. Mainly because what the camera manages to capture between the titular Olli Mäki (Jarkko Lahti) and his sweetheart Raija (Oona Airola) is absolutely what it needs to.
I’m gonna set out a difference here between romantic movies and love movies. It’s like a childish and youthful thing to do, and one that wholly trades in the sort of sexism and classism that is basically inherent in our discussions of courtship. A lot of sweet wholesome movies seem to be about romance, about the way we as humans enact our love onto the world around us. Fewer seem to be about the emotion of love itself, how we comprehend and rationalise and rejoice in the way our minds can feel sometimes.
I’m not going to go ahead and say one approach is better, there’s great examples of both, and indeed so much lies in the execution and the reading. I know many people who dismiss Romeo and Juliet as a romantic story, and I hold steadfast in my opinion it is a love story. As if even hearing that argument would make sense. Whatever, The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki is not a film about courtship, it’s a film about why.
Juho Kuosmanen is tricking the audience from the outset, they made this choice to shoot in 16mm b/w stock. I’m not too sure what camera would have taken something this rudimentary but it can’t have been a modern one. There’s a lot of handheld work going on and in those early scenes, a nervousness, constantly shifting and re-framing. It’ll hold on these scenes for an uncomfortable amount of time after they’ve finished, the small church hall everyone finds themselves trapped in by the rain seems stifling.
Then she kisses him, I ain’t spoiling anything, this a first five minutes deal, and it stops the movie in its tracks. The threads start to untangle and all that neuroticism fades away. Well, aside from in the world of boxing where the man has a few weeks to become Finland’s champion, a goal that suddenly seems less important.
Or maybe it’s not the goal that is unimportant, but all the stuff surrounding it. His manager, in addition to pumping up his training and cutting his diet in order to force 6kg of fat and water out of his body over the course of two weeks, arranges all the things a pro boxer has to do in order to make a living in the world. With the weight of an American Champion, one who has over six times as much professional experience, and a better win rate at that, bearing down on him, everything else seems slightly comic. The photoshoots, the documentary, the sponsors, all there for a man who’s just really preparing to take and give a good beating.
It’s such a slim film, that like the body of its star (who chomping on that young Jeff Goldblum aesthetic) it seems like to blow away on the breeze. Its insights come quietly and in passing. The characters’ agonies and ecstasies flicker quickly across their faces and disappear into the light, even the goofy comedy bits are bound by the collective sense of tact they all possess. It’s like Raging Bull directed by Richard Linklater although that’s a comparison which is entirely reductive of several master filmmakers.
I can make shitty cliché film reviewer sentences like that because I’m trying to avoid the truth that I have no way to describe what happens to one actor’s face when they look at another. What the camera there managed to capture. There was something vital about this pair. At the end of the film they stand by a river in an industrial district skipping stones. A sort of joyous inversion of that sequence in Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night. I’d have been happy to watch that shot for hours.