Armi Alive! is an intricately constructed character study of Armi Ratia, founder of Finnish design house Marimekko. Unlike a standard biopic, the film’s plot is unveiled as a play within a play, as a theatre company prepares to stage a production of Armi’s life story. It’s a clever set up, wherein the viewer gets a dramatised retelling of Armi’s rollercoaster business lifestyle as played by lead actor Marie (Minna Haapkylä), as well as the actor’s asides as she slowly deconstructs Armi as a person – trying to understand her motivations and fears, then express them in character.
The play charts Armi Ratia’s life from post-World War II to the late sixties, as she creates Marimekko and branches out internationally, namely to America, with the brand. Little is documented about Armi’s life, and that factors into Marie’s interpretations of her. Armi was a self-made woman, one of Finland’s greatest entrepreneurs and an incredibly stylish woman who challenged the European fashion status quo, but her personal life was scattered. She knew her husband, who doubled as her business partner, wasn’t the love of her life. She had three children, but had no inclination to parent them. She was desperate to create an empire, to be the ultimate CEO, and to provide the talented women she hired with stable employment, but she frequently sank into bouts of alcoholism and made several botched attempts to kill herself. She was resilient in the face of bankruptcies and fought against an entirely male upper echelon that wanted to oust her from her position of power. She was, as most talented people are, tremendously complex and somehow enigmatic. Armi Alive! tries to make headway in seeking the true Armi Ratia, and her feelings towards the empire she built.
The action never leaves the ‘set’ where the actors are rehearsing. Instead, much like a real theatre performance, the background scenery is changed with drapes and props being wheeled in and out. It’s a stylistic choice that comes off jarring at first, but quickly becomes part of the overall charm of the film. The story is inherently fascinating, and the minimalist set production gives the viewer the unique opportunity to construct their own fantasies and paint the scene with their imagination.
It is undoubtedly an advantage then that Armi Alive! is serenely elegant; every scene seems to have been lifted from a perfectly crafted colour palette. You can almost feel the ghost of texture as you watch characters run their hands over newly screen-printed fabrics, in the now infamous flower and colour patterns synonymous with Marimekko’s brand. The costumes are expectedly impeccable, leaping off the screen with crisp vitality. It’s a visual feast of fashionable sophistication.
Though the story is told in a more or less linear way, the script works cleverly to shift between present and past. There are the obvious scenes where the performers take a break, and Marie drops her Armi façade to smoke a cigarette on the steps outside the studio, dissecting her ‘character’ with the director. Other times it’s the jolt of an actor stopping a scene to start over, or to speak to someone out of shot about an unrelated topic.
The play within a play structure is more than a gimmick here. It can be interpreted as director Jörn Donner’s subtle invitation to the audience to throw away assumptions, both about Armi and in relation to the film’s biographical nature. A biopic is just an interpretation of a real person’s life, in the same way an actor is not really their character, merely projecting a version of a person. Marie is not Armi until she is Armi for the sake of the play, but regardless of her performance, Armi Ratia will forever remain a real person who existed, whose life had infinite intricacies that can never be known. What is known about her is what she chose to reveal, or what she exposed of herself to the public. When we watch Marie struggling to grasp the root of Armi’s problems, we understand her curiosity. We are reminded of the limitations in telling the story of a deceased person who was intensely private, despite living a publicised life.
There are times when the plot stumbles and the theatre set proves to be a hindrance rather than a blessing. They are moments that would be taken in with grave silence in a live theatre setting, but with the barrier of film, the scenes fall into unintentional absurdist territory and throw the energy off kilter. Armi Alive! succeeds when it has us in its grasp, falling into the layers of story upon story, draping over us like the elegant fabrics of Marimekko. Though by the end, we are still left to wonder, who really was Armi Ratia, and did anyone in her life truly know?