Cannes 2022 review: The Woodcutter Story (Mikko Myllylahti)

The Woodcutter Story comes out as an uneven film that shows Myllylahti’s talent in its first half, but fails to convince in its second.”

Existentialism, nihilism, spirituality. And snow, lots of snow. These are the ingredients of The Woodcutter Story, the debut feature of director Mikko Myllylahti, probably best known as the writer of 2016 Un Certain Regard winner The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki. Playing in Critics’ Week, this comedy-drama is engaging in its deadpan first half but can’t sustain that in a second half that aims to let the audience ponder the big questions in life but leaves it lost in the snow-covered woods of Northern Finland.

Things are not looking up for Pepe. First he loses his job when the sawmill in his idyllic town closes, then his mother dies, his wife sleeps around with a local barber (as do most women in town, it seems), his best friend commits suicide by driving headfirst into a truck, his house burns down, and his wife leaves him, taking their son with her. To say Pepe is on a streak of misfortune would be an understatement. Yet he isn’t fazed, taking his ordeals in stride and always looking for the positive. When his son returns, the father-son relationship is continued as if nothing happened, but the arrival of a psychic singer threatens to tear the two apart, forcing Pepe to shed the shrugging of shoulders and look for deeper meaning if he wants to stay close to his son.

The Woodcutter Story was inspired by a chance meeting between Myllylahti and, wouldn’t you know it, a woodcutter who had lost everything but accepted everything with a smile, as if to live by the film’s tagline ‘Hope Is Always an Option’. In many ways The Woodcutter Story is a very hopeful tale of people’s resilience through hardship, but it also tries to grasp something deeper to find where that hope springs from. It is here that the film falters, as its ideas around this are not fully formed and hindered by its own quirkiness and peculiar characters.

The film is split into two chapters, the first one leading to Pepe’s lowest point through a quick succession of the tragic events that befall him. Employing mostly static mid-range shots that quickly establish the scene visually, often through the background with the central characters closer to the camera, as if oblivious to what is happening around them, Myllylahti’s style and aesthetic are in the vein of his more famous compatriot Aki Kaurismäki and of Swedish master of absurdism Roy Andersson. Characters that can best be described as a collection of grotesque oddballs recite their lines blank-faced, having conversations that feel weirdly out of place. Yet for fans of the aforementioned directors, it’s a style of comedy that works, and it isn’t any different with Myllylahti and The Woodcutter Story.

Once we get to the second chapter, however, things start to fall apart a bit. Myllylahti changes pace, and the first thing to notice is a difference in mise-en-scene. In the first few shots of this chapter, shot composition as well as camera angles and movement are noticeably different. We also see a smiling Pepe as his son picks him up from work, for the first time in the film. Given the first chapter’s view at Pepe’s decline and his laconic reaction to it, the second chapter’s exploration of the deeper reasoning behind that being represented in a different visual approach is an excellent choice by Myllylahti. But he doesn’t pull it all the way through, which makes the back half of The Woodcutter Story an odd mishmash of stylistic choices. Add to that a lack of coherence in what the film is trying to say, and The Woodcutter Story comes out as an uneven film that shows Myllylahti’s talent in its first half, but fails to convince in its second.