Cast: Markku Peltola, Kati Outinen, Sakari Kuosmanen;
Finland/France/Germany 2002; 97 min.
Like many auteurs of his generation, Aki Kaurismaki is entirely self-taught. After a working life spent as a postman and film critics among other things, he turned his hand to film-making in the eighties and has been incredibly successful in his endeavour, producing his own films and distributing them through his own company Alphaville, and showing them at his arthouse cinemas in Finland. Often working with his elder brother Mika, they have shaped the face of Finnish cinema crafting one-fifth of the total output of the Finnish film industry since 1981.
In love with the past and of Finland’s lugubrious hard-drinking working classes, often down on their luck – anything post 1980 does not interest him visually, here he has created another anti-hero for THE MAN WITHOUT A PAST, this time the director could not even bother to give him a name, in the credits he is just ‘M’.
M (his beloved Markku Peltola) arrives one Spring evening in Helsinki with a small suitcase. Resting on a park bench he nods off and is attacked by three young men, who leave him for dead. Coming round in a rain-soaked stupor, he gets some treatment and then stumbles out of hospital with retrograde amnesia and ends up on a container site, used by the homeless. Here he makes friends, and rents a container from Antilla (Kuosmanen), who does not actually own it but finds a way of exploiting those down on their luck. His ‘fierce’ dog Hannibal turns out to be a submissive female, and soon snuggles up with M on his bed. All this is shot through with Kaurismaki’s trademark blend of eccentric situational humour which is light on dialogue and heavy on innuendo.
M can’t remember a thing about his life but spots a couple of metal workers down near the port and gets a strange inkling that he was possibly a welder. Turning to the Samaritans for help, he falls in love with Irma (Outinen), who looks after him. He turns the Samaritan’s musicians into a swing band and after finding job as a welder, he gets caught up in a bank robbery and is locked in the vault with the bank teller. The involvement with the police leads to his identification: he was married, but his wife divorced him due to him gambling. When M travels back to his home town by train he finds her living in their former marital dwelling with a boyfriend, and M is only to relieved that he does not have to fight it out with his rival, returning back to Irma in Helsinki and eventual revenge.
Kaurismaki’s classic absurdist humour is an acquired taste and THE MAN WITHOUT A PAST is the one of best examples. When M cooks dinner for Irma in his container, she asks politely “Are you sure, I can’t help”, to which he answers dead-pan: “I think it’s ruined already”. And after an electrician has helped him connect the power line to his container, M asks how he could return the favour. The man answers matter of factly: “If you see me lying in the gutter face down, turn me on my back”. And finally, when locked in the vault with the teller by the robber, he asks her “Do you mind, if I smoke?”, her cool but enigmatic answer is “Does a tree mourn its fallen leaves?”.
Whilst Kaurismaki is best compared with Preston Sturges and his comedies of the 30s; his heroes like M, are like the actors Buster Keaton preferred, “they can’t raise their voice, their only reaction are furrowed brows”. DOP Timo Salminen, who shot nearly all of Kaurismaki’s films, shows Finland as a grim country of suicides, poverty, hunger and alcoholism and this is borne, according to the director “out of the change in society from a mainly agricultural country, to an industrialised society – many feel rootless and alienated in their own country where high rise blocks and unemployment kill the soul. ” This is a common thread that also runs through
THE MAN WITHOUT A PAST won the Grand Prix at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, Kati Outinen best actress. AS
REVIEWED DURING THE UCLSSEES SEASON AT THE BLOOMSBURY STUDIO W1 | OCTOBER – DECEMBER 2015