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If Aki Kaurismaki were the Eagles, which he is not, The Man Without a Past might be considered a kind of "best of" album. In vibrant color, accompanied by mutated Finnish rockabilly and possessed by Kaurismaki's trademark bleak hilarity, it includes all the deadpan delivery, heavy drinking and bad luck of his earlier films. All the ticklish non sequiturs, cross-purpose dialogue and flair for profound inanity/casual devastation. Augmented by a pronounced eagerness to get the hell out of Helsinki.
Mission accomplished. Most significantly for a prolific filmmaker who hasn't had a U.S. release since 1992's La Vie de Bohème, The Man Without a Pastis distributed by Sony Classics. Following Kaurismaki's last film, Juha — a silent, black-and-white remake of a silent, black-and-white '30s Finnish tragedy that had about as much chance for a major U.S. deal as anything from Hou Hsiao-Hsien or Abbas Kiarostami — The Man Without a Past feels slightly less hangdog and marginally more lap dog.
Its title character (played by Markku Peltola) is a nameless worker from northern Finland who, while dozing at a Helsinki bus stop, is Sammy Sosa-ed by a trio of Nordic Droogs, who leave him to die on the street, in his welder's helmet. Via the awakened victim's POV, we watch as he lurches across a commercial district, past the staring faces of terrified, unhelpful pedestrians, until he ends up in a men's room, collapses into a stall, and help is finally summoned. With typically Finnish urgency.
At the hospital, a doctor, pronouncing his patient a man without a future, proves himself less a healer than a font of metaphor: "Notify the morgue — I'm due at the maternity ward." Left alone, the "corpse" abruptly sits up, straightens his broken nose with a crunch that sounds like celery, rips out his tubes and runs out of the hospital.
And what — now that he's come to — do we finally learn about our hero? Nothing, at least not in the sense of name, rank or serial number. This is the Kaurismaki twist on the amnesia story — a guilt-free rebirth, anonymous renewal, no turning back. In fact, though, over the next 80 minutes or so, we learn plenty. For one thing, that integrity exists apart from memory: Our man is a worker par excellence, fastidious, persevering, honest and true. Thrifty, brave, clean and irreverent. A person whose loss of the past affects not in the least the essential nature of his character.
But if our guy is steady, the Kaurismaki universe is not. It is unruly and unruled, populated by solitary individuals about whom the only applicable stereotype is their solitude. Lying comatose along a lakeside in outer Helsinki, the still-nameless protagonist has his boots stolen by an elderly vagrant. Then a pair of married squatters (Juhani Niemela and Kaija Pakarinen) take him in, nursing him back to consciousness amid their children and Papa's secret drinking. A combination slumlord and aspiring Ton-Ton Macoute named Antilla ("'The Whip of God' — to my friends") sets him up in a squalid shack for exorbitant rent, though the electrician who helps him steal power does so gratis ("If you see me face-down in the gutter, turn me onto my back," he suggests as payment). When our Man goes to seek government aid, the agency director threatens and insults him for not knowing his own name; a sympathetic waitress promptly stands him a meal.
In other words, for Kaurismaki, the truth lies in individuals, be they bureaucrat or prole. Kaurismaki's is a world in which social Darwinism rules and the odds are against you. Only existential stoicism can keep someone afloat, and the queasy state of relationships — dependent as they are on the most modest, fumbling, incompetent means of communication — makes love between two people as unlikely as the fact that life ever occurred on this planet in the first place.
And yet, it happens. Which makes Kaurismaki the most optimistic of pessimists. That romance comes in — or, rather, is visited upon — a figure as dauntingly serious as Sister Irma (Kati Outinen), the Salvation Army officer with whom our Man falls in love, is just more evidence that Kaurismaki is a closet sentimentalist. Outinen is the director's anchor, a featured performer in a majority of his films, the woman who made matricide, patricide and plain old random murder sympathetic in Kaurismaki's Match Factory Girl (1989). Her Best Actress honor at Cannes last year (for the new film) was widely considered a career-achievement award — a recognition both of her skill and of her working so consistently with her irascible fellow Finn. (An aside: When Kaurismaki took the stage at Cannes in May to receive his Grand Jury Prize, a.k.a. second place, he stopped first by jury president David Lynch and whispered something that put a look of alarm on the American director's face. The most consistent story is that Kaurismaki muttered, "As Hitchcock said, 'Who the hell are you?'" Many, apparently including Kaurismaki, thought he'd be taking the Palme d'Or.)
Outinen probably would have been paired with her frequent co-star and Kaurismaki fetish-actor Matti Pellonpaa, had Pellonpaa lived. A photograph of the vaguely whimsical, mustachioed actor, who died in 1995, stares down on one scene, shot in the Kaurismaki brothers' Moscow Bar in Helsinki (adjacent to their combination pool hall, saloon and movie theater). It's a kind of blessing — on the movie, on the scene and on the performance of Markku Peltola.
Peltola delivered one of Kaurismaki's best lines, as the drunken chef in 1996's Drifting Clouds ("I am on a journey to the end of vodka — let's have lunch sometime"). Here, his stolid performance, with its quiet, deliberate dignity, is something quite different from the far more ironic and self-aware one Pellonpaa would doubtless have delivered. Still, Peltola is a wonderful vehicle for Kaurismaki's relentlessly facetious screenwriting. Trapped with a female clerk in a bank vault after a rather friendly armed robbery, Peltola's character makes small talk.
"We're running out of oxygen," he observes. And then, with a straight face: "Mind if I smoke?"
The Man Without a Past, following its success at Cannes 2002 and a persistent loud buzz at any number of subsequent international film festivals, was a long shot in this year's Foreign Film Oscar race: That Kaurismaki would seduce people who've actually taken Ron Howard's career seriously was about as likely as Pat Buchanan, in 2000, winning the elderly Jewish vote in southern Florida (which may be why some of us were still nursing hopes for the director on March 23). Kaurismaki, with his minimalism, his flat perspectives and his relentless two-shots, is northernmost Jarmusch, by way of Buster Keaton and Samuel Beckett, whose common penchant for Sisyphean tragicomedy also enlivens the Kaurismaki corpus.
Speaking of which, a career retrospective, sponsored by BAMcinematek and the Finnish Film Foundation, opens in July and, following an initial run in Toronto, will tour North America, with a scheduled appearance at LACMA in October. And while Kaurismaki's take on the world — the essential hopelessness of little people directing their fates, the momentous harm that can be done in the attempt to do good — hasn't hitherto resonated here the way it has abroad, perhaps, with an unelected president waging an unwanted war, Kaurismaki and the U.S. will have finally synchronized their watches.
THE MAN WITHOUT A PAST | Written, directed and produced by AKI KAURISMAKI | Released by Sony Pictures Classics | At Landmark's Westside Pavilion, Laemmle's Playhouse 7, Laemmle's Town Center
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