The latest film from prolific, oddball Finnish (if that's not a redundancy) director Aki Kaurismäki is a lovely little magical-realist fairy-tale about identity and integrity. Like his earlier efforts that have been released in the US (in spite of his having made more than twenty films in the last three decades, only a very few have been seen here), The Man Without A Past relies on a kind of eccentric, deadpan, ironic humor reminiscent of Ernie Kovacs. It is not everyone's idea of comedy, but if you like that kind of thing, there is a lot to like here.
The story revolves around a character called "M" in the credits - whose designation might be meant to conjure images of Kafka's existential anti-heroes. M arrives in Helsinki in the opening sequence, where he falls asleep on a park bench and is attacked by three thugs with a baseball bat who beat him senseless, rob him and leave him for dead. He is transported to a hospital, where an attending doctor and nurse see his vital-signs monitor go to a flat-line and declare him dead.
They leave the room - the nurse first covering the deceased with a sheet. Suddenly, M sits up, pulls the sensors and IVs from his body, grabs his clothes and leaves. When next we see him he is lying as if dead beside a canal, while a homeless person trades his worn sneakers for M's fine boots. Two blond twin boys happen by. M moves, and the children run to get their mother.
M is slowly nursed to health by the ministrations of the little family, who live in a modified freight container at the edge of Helsinki Harbor. Perhaps because of his head injury, he can remember almost nothing of his past. He begins to rebuild his life, with the help of the family and other characters he meets along the way - a more than sympathetic Salvation Army worker, a generous, honest bank robber, a soft-hearted security guard, a female dog named Hannibal, a Salvation Army musical combo, and various other denizens of the fringe-world in which he finds himself.
M is repeatedly confronted with the world's insistence that he must be able to put a name to himself, even as he is deeply engaged in the process of finding out what that name might mean. His actions and reactions, and those of the people around him have an almost visible resonance. He reaches out to the Salvation Army worker and inspires her to see herself in a new way - as she has already done for him, telling him with loving and hopeful but wholly unsentimental candor that he must "pull himself together." He puts in a couple of rows of potato plants, whose irrepressible persistence, even in that poor soil, proves more than one thing to him.
The acting is intentionally stiff and exceedingly deadpan. The characters are not intended to be "realistic" in the conventional sense, and have more in common with those of Samuel Beckett or Bertolt Brecht than with those we generally expect to meet in film. But they are never pretentious or "symbolic" for the sake of being so. Their effectiveness rises from their being so humbly and economically drawn that there is plenty of room for the audience to project their own struggles and aspirations on to them.
There are long, inexplicable pauses in the dialogue. The language is simple, suggestive and rough, rather than clever and polished. An out-of-work electrician is one of the inhabitants of the squatters village. He serves the community by tapping into the power-lines that criss-cross the land. After he hooks M's container up, M asks how much he owes him. "If you see me lying face down in the gutter," the electrician replies, "just roll me over on my back."
The plot is filled with coincidences and non-sequiturs that are passed off without any attempt to justify or integrate them. It is possible to begin to suspect that the story - although it seems superficially mundane - is not taking place in the world to which we are accustomed.
This is a movie that is about mood, about rumination, about meditation, far more than it is about action, personality and event. Kaurismäki explores the notion of identity - how we create our sense of ourselves, how we "know who we are" - what evidence we seek and find acceptable, how others contribute to our self-definition, and how we may try to know one another.
One of the ways he does this is by using parody, turning social conventions of courtesy and responsibility on their heads - turning routine identifications inside out. The bank robber defines himself not through any selfish motive, but simply a desire to "do the right thing" in a world where the law and morality have lost their connection.
The shady businesses of the security guard turn out to be not selfishness, but pretexts for generosity - of a sort. The self-repression of the Salvation Army musicians is seen to be only a disguise, mis-guidedly adopted as a form of self-protection, and easily discarded in the face of something more real and compelling. There is an innocence and openness to all of the characters, a sense of limitless possibility that is the flip-side of the loss of conventional "ego."
The mood is one of unhurried reflection, of self-examination, of letting words and events hang in the air while making space for deeper meanings to emerge. And what appears is the possibility that human kindness - charity in the Biblical sense - provides the essential rationale for all satisfying interaction.
M literally "dies and is born again" - into what world, we do not know. Is it our own, some dream version of our own, some "afterlife?" As Wim Wenders did in his lyrical and provocative Wings Of Desire Kaurismäki weds the mundane to the fantastic and supernatural - creatures of the human imagination after all - to explore what it means to be human - to imagine our lives. He does it with such delicacy, such diffident courtesy - much like that of his characters - that instead of a polemic, he creates a flexible and intriguing framework for our own imaginations to use in exploring the questions he raises.
The action takes place against a production design that is at once "realist" and fantastic. Kaurismäki uses lighting techniques adapted from the noir genre and the German surrealists, sets and set dressing that highlight "whimsical" modern design, purposefully crude special effects, and a sense of theatricality and lack of depth, to give the film a visual sense of just slightly off-kilter, otherworldly surrealism.
The production values are very "European." Shunning the glitz and polish of modern commercial movie making for a stark, slightly dis-orienting tone that creates a feeling of "foreignness," Kaurismäki uses available light and harsh artificial lighting, letting obvious shadows and visual obscurities remind us that what we are watching is not "real." The sets are a cacophony of dispirit elements, united only by the film-maker's - and our own - imagination.
The park bench where M is attacked looks like a theatrical setting - two dimensional and generic. Building interiors are made of cinderblock or metal - hard, artificial surfaces, painted in drab tones or weathered to dullness. But the security guard's car is cheerful, totally incongruous blue, and the free dinner M is given looks hot and delicious in rich greens and browns.
The desolate shores of the harbor are decorated with enormous, brightly-painted mechanical cranes gliding about like creatures from War Of The Worlds, and host the squatters colony of abandoned and remodeled freight containers. M. finds a colorful, angular cartoon of a jukebox, a warm collage of yellow and orange lights, in the junkyard, and discovers it to be rife with the music of life - raucous blues hollers, foot-tapping three-chord rock'n'roll, plaintive love songs.
The music, as in other Kaurismäki films, is central. It represents a kind of transcendent imagination, a pursuit of the beautiful, the delightful, the sensual and the magical (however awkward that pursuit may look from the outside) that ennobles those who engage in it and enriches those who witness it. And with typical generosity, Kaurismäki includes the audience in the experience, as he draws us in to become part of the action in musical numbers presented from the point of view of the on-screen audience.
The pace is deliberate, thoughtful and unhurried. Fans of The Fast And The Furious will be Gone in Sixty Seconds. But for those who can settle into Kaurismäki's otherworldly calm, the subtle sensibility of the film will provide a welcome and effective antidote to the empty and ultimately meaningless "entertainments" of computer graphics, gun battles and car chases.
-- Ned Depew