The Man Without a Past

(Aki Kaurismäki, Finland, 2002)


The films of Finnish writer-director Aki Kaurismäki (Drifting Clouds, 1996) are an acquired taste.

There some viewers who will just never get the odd tone of his films, with their throwaway, deadpan jokes, uniformly hangdog actors and static compositions.

For those who can manage to hop onto the wavelength of Kaurismäki's movies, heaven awaits. He is among those major artists of world cinema who has been disgracefully treated by Australia's boutique arthouse distributors. The release of The Man Without a Past, one of his finest, wisest and most poetic films, is therefore doubly an event.

Kaurismäki is a master of droll humour. Sometimes this can erect a barrier to the work, especially if one enters via his endlessly self-mocking interviews and public statements (such as "I am wild but Billy was Wilder"). His characters seemingly live for nothing, cultivating a cynical irony about their miserable condition. The events that occur to these largely passive figures usually take the form of a vast, cosmic gag.

M (Markku Peltola) is the man without a past. Mugged by a trio of louts, he wakes up with neither a memory nor a single trace indicating his identity. His survival and subsistence are aided by kindly folks who live in rundown homes and by the local Salvation Army.

Without ever willing it or talking about it, M slowly becomes part of a community, an underclass. This motley crew of the homeless, alcoholics and other dispossessed citizens don't converse very much; they come together for a drink or a dance. But when they are threatened, they pull together – resulting in a climactic moment that most Hollywood feel-good directors would kill to be able to achieve.

Kaurismäki is a masterly stylist. Working with great economy and modest resources, he turns the real world into an aesthetic object all his own. With its palette of primary colours and its crazy, heterogeneous raft of songs – much of the action simply shows people turning on radios or jukeboxes and listening to music – the film subtly draws us into its mood and vision.

The dialogue is hilariously and surreally stylised, full of offhand comments like "I went to the moon today" or "Does a tree mourn its fallen leaves?" And Kaurismäki's actors form a splendidly deadpan ensemble, with their deliberately steady movements, stiff poses and inexpressive faces.

Kaurismäki has pulled off the hardest homage of all: his model is the French director Robert Bresson (Mouchette, 1967), who preached that actors should be used as models, mere figures. But Kaurismäki is a secular, not a mystical Bresson, and he has miraculously reworked his idol's stern syntax into his own, lyrical language.

It is among the biggest clichés in film reviewing to hail a director for his or her sudden, surprising attainment of maturity. This happened to Almodóvar with Talk to Her (2002), and to The Man Without a Past. Amnesia prevails: both filmmakers have been serious, deep thinking artists for a long time. In Kaurismäki's case, the themes of social marginality and fragile hope go back at least to Ariel (1988).

But there is no doubt that, here, Kaurismäki produces his most touching variation on these themes. The more that M seeks to reintegrate himself into the most basic social functions – like getting a job or a bank account – the more he finds himself victimised and excluded. Although this was probably not the filmmaker's intention, his fable has a powerful resonance for Australia. In its own heightened, allegorical way, it can be taken as a story about the refugee crisis, about vilified people with no way of entering the structures of normality.

The Man Without a Past is also – and this is a characteristic Kaurismäki trait – a tentative, very restrained love story. M and Irma (Kati Outinen) of the Salvation Army are drawn to each other. In Kaurismäki's typically chaste manner, we see no more than a kiss, a walk, a holding of hands. But what emotion flows from this fragile, endangered union of lost, damaged souls!

Only Kaurismäki could transform a shot of his heroes obscured by a passing, rumbling train into an unforgettable song of love.

MORE Kaurismäki: Leningrad Cowboys Go America, La Vie de Bohème

© Adrian Martin March 2003

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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