Master of the Shabby Chic; Kaurismaki's Deadpan Touch in Full Swing with "The Man Without a Past"
by David Sterritt and Mikita Brottman
Aki Kaurismaki has kept a low profile for the past few years. But you can't keep a good Finn down, and like the hero of his latest movie, he's making an impressive comeback. "The Man Without a Past" arrives at the New York Film Festival after a rousing reception at Cannes, where it was the only picture to garner two awards this year -- the runner-up grand jury prize and the best-actress accolade for Kati Outinen, one of his longtime creative partners. It also took the coveted Palm Dog award, bestowed on Kaurismaki's pooch Tahti by a four-member panel for her stellar portrayal of Hannibal, surely the most lovable attack dog in cinema history.
"The Man Without a Past" tells the simple tale of an amnesiac who builds a new life for himself among the outcasts and hard-luck cases on Helsinki's hard-pressed outskirts. The protagonist, an anonymous proletarian called M (Markku Peltola), arrives in the city only to be beaten up by a gang of skinhead hooligans, then returns from the brink of death to discover he has no memory of his former existence. Starting life again from the bottom, he moves in with a homeless family that inhabits a shipping crate, and acquires Hannibal, his listless but loyal companion.
M's first task is to familiarize himself with the strange rules and customs guiding the community of lost and abandoned souls he now belongs to -- the world of the overlooked and disenfranchised, subsisting in a damp, deserted no-man's-land presided over by an eminently corruptible security guard who ekes out his living by renting them the industrial containers they gamely regard as homes. Circumstances are difficult at best, but M is determined to see things through. It doesn't hurt that his neighbors are the most generous and genteel collection of homeless people since the tramps William Powell bedded down with in the Depression comedy "My Man Godfrey."
M eventually meets Irma (Outinen), a shy Salvation Army worker, and when he moves into his own shipping crate, romance blossoms between them. His matter-of-fact integrity finds its counterpart in Irma's humble pride, and their relationship ultimately withstands pressures from M's past, which slowly comes back to haunt him.
The main subplot centers on M's ambition of becoming a concert promoter, which he cleverly pursues by instructing his girlfriend's Salvation Army band in the rudiments of rock music. The biggest plot twist comes when M regains contact with his forgotten history -- discovering that he was a distressingly normal fellow with a perfectly nice house and a wife who now seems like just another lady on the block. In one of the picture's nicest touches, M and his wife's new man decide they ought to fight each other, since that's what guys are expected to do in situations like this. Kaurismaki knows better, of course, and soon the fellas realize a perfunctory handshake will save them both a lot of trouble.
Like earlier Kaurismaki films, "The Man Without a Past" has a deadpan, sometimes lugubrious tone. The sober mood is lightened by a touching sense of human decency, though, and by characters who face the misfortunes, injustices, and sad accidents of life with matter-of-fact stoicism.
Kaurismaki has said he thought of Frank Capra's classic "It's a Wonderful Life" while making "The Man Without a Past," and this influence is detectable in the movie's mingled echoes of 1940s noir and old-fashioned Hollywood sentiment. But he also has great affection for the films and fashions of the 1950s era, and this looms large in the movie's stylized dialogue, choreographed gestures, proudly synthetic lighting, and construction of a richly imagined world that's at once intimately related to and poignantly distanced from our own.
A crowning touch comes from the eclectic and enchanting soundtrack, punctuated by beautiful set-piece songs. Not since "Leningrad Cowboys Go America" (1989) has Kaurismaki so smartly indulged his passion for music, using rock 'n' roll to energize the picture's ambience without letting it overtake the visual rhythms he builds with camera work and editing.
Most of Kaurismaki's films are hard to pigeonhole with either-or labels like comedy and tragedy. "Leningrad Cowboys" is pretty hilarious, and "The Match Factory Girl" (1990) is unarguably an essay in despair, but most of his works do a delicate balancing act between wry humor and vivid recognition of life's worst possibilities. His last major film, "Drifting Clouds" (1996), is in ways his most radical, pushing his minimalist aesthetics and love-hate relationship with human existence almost to their limits, and "La Vie de Boheme" (1992) remains the most brilliant expression of his filmmaking philosophy. While it doesn't outdo those masterpieces, "The Man Without a Past" is a marvelous successor, etching a bittersweet vision of discarded people and second-hand lives. It rejuvenates Kaurismaki as cinema's great master of shabby chic.
Editors Note: indieWIRE originally published this story in October 2002 as part of our New York Film Festival coverage.