Festival de Cannes
61e Semaine de la critque 2022
The Woodcutter Story
Dir. Mikko Myllylahti
May 17, 2022
For a debut feature one needs to be brave and willing to push not only your own boundaries but the boundaries of your audiences expectations. Playing it safe with a well meaning, simple and predictable story doesn’t hold must chance of leaving much of an impact. Nordic filmmaker Mikko Myllylahti gained a remarkable reputation having written the Un Certain Regard Award (2016) winning feature The Happiest Day In The Life Of Olli Maki, he’s decided to fully embrace the surreal in The Woodcutter Story.
A small town in Northern Finland is home to a small community where life is quiet, slower and calm. Pepe, Jarkko Lahti, like many men in the town, is a woodcutter working at the local sawmill. This is somewhat an idliic place to raise a family and to live life at a slower but enjoyable pace. But things begin to take a turn and Pepe’s life becomes upended and yet his outlook remains steady and somewhat unflinching. In a shock announcement the men of the sawmill discover that the mill is to close and a new mine will be established. Undaunted Pepe world begins to unravel which sees him losing his mother, Ulla Tapaninen, after she is attacked by a strange beast. And Pepe’s best friend, a man he named his son after, Tuomas, HP. Björkman, becomes obsessed with the idea that his wife is having an affair with the towns hairdresser. And yet Pepe remains unfazed, unwilling to react and as obsession gets the better of Tuomas and violence takes over Pepe is pushed mentally closer and closer towards the edge but doesn’t flinch. After the incident with the hairdresser Pepe's wife leaves him and his house mysteriously burns down and he ends up taking a job at the new mine which provides him and young Tuomas with a place to stay, Pepe still doesn’t flinch. Things begin to take an even more dark and surreal turn when a singing ‘truth seer’ Jaakko, Marc Gassot, tries to inspire and empower the deflated members of the community to rise up against the mine to disastrous effect.
To say that The Woodcutter Story is strange would be an understatement. It verges on weird but in the most exciting and inspiring way. Though the film was written before the pandemic and is based on a conversation the director had with a man who had lost everything but rained positive in his outlook. If one wanted to look at the religious aspect one could say that Pepe is being tested and that test is simple, react, be angry, scream, feel sorry for yourself. Whatever he does he must do something that shows his pain, frustration and anger, but he doesn’t. By not reacting Pepe is able to remain calm and realise that there is no point to being mad or being angry at things that have happened and that are happening. Sometimes the best thing one can do is to take a breather and be calm.
"...really does make you sit up and take a moment to realise that no matter what you are going through if you able to keep your positivity and a fresh outlook on life..."
This is why I see The Woodcutter Story as a fable. Watching this film makes you wonder how much is real and how much is fantasy or just dreams. The opening scene is ambiguous and leaves a lot to the imagination. Who is the man meets a well dressed woman in a cabin on a mountain top in order to sign some papers, how did she get up there to this sparsely decorated cabin. There is no explanation given for who they are or what their role really is but they're significant, two people with the power to cause the type of human destruction that is unfolding below them. At the end of the film Pepe also makes his own way up that same mountain face to that same cabin only to open it and find himself back in his home. Is this death? Limbo, or is he in purgatory until he finally reacts to the pain that is around him?
Myllylahti shot The Woodcutter Story on 35 mm and it shows. The films feels like every scene and every moment counted and nothing was wasted. This is most brilliantly captured in the hairdresser scene when Pepe takes his some to get an haircut and him a shave. It’s a small scene but it is one that takes its time and the pace of it so delicately fits the weirdly wonderful narrative that Myllylahti has created. There really is something to be said about filmmakers going back to using film stock when they can as it’s incredibly expensive but the result means filmmakers avoid just shooting everything and “fixing it” in post-production. The use of 35 mm doesn't just lift the film but it gives it such an incredible cinematic feel that is beautifully captured by cinematographer Arsen Saarkisiants.
The Woodcutter Story is a perfect film to reflect on the times we’ve lived through these past few years. It’s a film that has something special and positive in it’s lead that really does make you sit up and take a moment to realise that no matter what you are going through if you able to keep your positivity and a fresh outlook on life then you can never be beaten.