Finnish writer-director Aki Kaurismäki’s dour comedies are so matter-of-factly presented that it takes a while for one to realize just how thoroughly stylized they are. In Kaurismäki’s world, which is typically the world of the Finnish underclass, everyone suffers impassively, without wailing or breast beating, stoic to the point of zombie-like acceptance. Bad times are the air they breathe and to make too great a fuss about it would be pointless.
In previous films like Shadows in Paradise (1986), Ariel (1988) and The Match Factory Girl (1989), his sad-sack protagonists drifted through their mean little lives without illusion or acceptance or the effort of endurance — they simply were. Presented in a naturalistic if excessively low-keyed manner, these stories could be mistaken for genuine slices of life, if it weren’t for their exaggeratedly diminished characters. The mood of Kaurismäki’s movies is in the tradition of the existential absurd; he’s funny in the way that Beckett is sometimes funny, when the airlessness of the despair starts to seem intentionally ridiculous.
The Man Without a Past is being hailed as both a return to and an extension of the style and thrust of Kaurismäki’s earlier films. And while it’s doubtlessly a return to form, the extension part is debatable, a case, I think, of reading too much into the fact that the film has a relatively happy ending. The title character, simply called M in the credits (and nothing in the film) is played by Markku Peltona, a suitable replacement for Kaurismäki’s frequent star, the late Matti Pellonpaa, having an equally enigmatic demeanor, even though he’s a physically more substantial guy. His reticence could easily be mistaken for a tough guy’s coolness.
The movie begins with M arriving in Helsinki by train and being immediately robbed, beaten and left for dead. In the hospital he flatlines, but after the doctor and nurse leave the room he abruptly sits up, detaches himself from his life-support tubing and goes wandering into the night. Risen from the dead and with no memory of his former life, M is a typical Kaurismäki character, but with the new twist of a recognizable motivation.
Previously, when Pellonpaa essayed similar roles he only seemed like a stunned amnesiac. Now we have the real thing. Sitting, staring and smoking his hand-rolled cigarettes, M is a tabula rasa waiting for something to fill him in — but if nothing does, then that’s OK too. One can expect a certain amount of kindness and a certain amount of cruelty, and neither should come as a surprise.
When M is taken in by an impoverished couple who live in an old shack and who nurse him back to health, several days go by before he says anything, to which his benefactress responds, “I didn’t know you could speak.” “I just haven’t had anything to say,” he replies. It’s not that he isn’t quietly polite and grateful to his hosts, it’s just that he isn’t exactly chatty. In Kaurismäki’s world, people don’t keep their thoughts to themselves because they’re brooding, but because they genuinely need a reason to speak.
M ventures out to seek some kind of employment, finds another benefactor in a comically ineffectual bully, who’s under the delusion that his docile pup is a killer attack dog, then finds a potential girlfriend when he meets an egregiously repressed Salvation Army worker named Irma (Kati Outinen, another Kaurismäki regular with an all-hope-abandoned puss). The film is anecdotal and what plot there is remains whimsical even when it seems a little forced.
One of Kaurismäki’s recurring motifs, the joyous effects of American rockabilly (which he celebrated in 1989’s Leningrad Cowboys Go America, one of his more baroque fantasies), shows up here when the Salvation Army band rather miraculously changes its repertoire to what they quaintly refer to as “rhythm music.”
In fact, this is all familiar ground for Kaurismäki fans, good but pretty much what you’d expect, droll and infused with an appreciation for our common condition — as when an electrician hooks up the hovel M is given by the bully and M asks him what he owes him. “If you see me lying face down in the gutter,” the electrician replies, “turn me on my back.”
It’s the little things that count.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Friday-Sunday. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].