M: Thank you.
Mrs. Nieminen: What do you do?
If you know anything at all about Finnish cinema, you are likely to know the name of Aki Kaurismäki. Though he and his older brother, Mika, have been making films since the early '80s, Aki didn't begin attracting international attention until 1988, with his sixth film, Ariel. The Man Without a Past (2002) is the first of his films to receive widespread distribution in the US. It was nominated for the Oscar as Best Foreign Film, won the runner-up prize at the Cannes Film Festival, and won six of Finland's Jussi Awards, including those for Best Film and Best Direction.
Kaurismäki's films—and this one in particular—are often described as "deadpan comedies." The humor is typically bone dry, couched in subtle irony. His characters tend to register little emotion, perhaps sending up the reputation of Finnish people as being relatively shy, quiet, and private. Dialogue can be punctuated by long stares and uncomfortable silences. He tends to celebrate characters that have been outcast by society, dispossessed, or had a run of hard luck. Finally, music is very important to his films, often blending diverse styles like American rockabilly and blues, classical music, and Finnish pop songs. Sony Pictures Classics, in conjunction with Columbia TriStar, has just released The Man Without a Past on DVD (the first Region 1 release for any of Kaurismäki's films).
Facts of the Case
Markku Peltola plays a welder (identified in the credits as "M") who arrives by train in Helsinki. While he is dozing on a park bench at night, three thugs rob him, beat him severely with a baseball bat, and leave him for dead. After being pronounced dead at the hospital, he awakens with a start, leaves unnoticed, and wanders the streets in a daze. A poor family living in an old metal shipping container takes him in, and nurses him back to health. Although he can speak, it soon becomes clear that he has lost all knowledge of his name, occupation, and former life. At a Salvation Army soup kitchen, he is smitten with a volunteer named Irma (Kati Outinen), who helps him start his life anew. Cast out by a society suspicious of someone without a name or number, he attempts to rebuild his life from the fringes.
There are two memorable images near the start of the film that set the stage for this gentle comedy. After M is beaten by the thugs, one of them covers his bloodied face with M's own welding helmet, which recalls the appearance of the alien and his robot emerging from the spaceship, in Robert Wise's The Day the Earth Stood Still. When he stumbles away from the hospital, M's bandaged face suggests that of Claude Rains in The Invisible Man. With the first image, Kaurismäki anticipates how most of society will react to M (even though he is a peaceful person, he is regarded with suspicion). With the second image, we sense that M will disappear into the woodwork once his bandages are removed. Not only is M invisible in a figurative sense (in the same way that many homeless people are), but he is also a blank slate, able to start again from zero, and Kaurismäki is clearly celebrating that opportunity.
Some have found a sort of life-affirming message in this film. Kaurismäki seems to be saying that sometimes happiness can only be glimpsed when our lives are stripped bare (M is reborn both in a literal and metaphorical sense). The director is critical of society's safety nets, which are withheld from those who can't or won't play by the rules. People in the "real" world are too quick to judge M a drunk, an addict, or a Welfare schemer. The only true charity he finds comes from those who have almost nothing to give.
The eclectic musical soundtrack is an essential part of the film. From the blues and rock emerging from a discarded jukebox, to a Salvation Army band that sounds like Dire Straits, to rockabilly, a Japanese song about Hawaii, and a haunting Finnish ballad called "Muistatko Mon Repos'n," the musical selections are wonderful. Deadpan acting is always difficult to judge, since facial expression is an important tool of the actor's trade. Despite these constraints, both Markku Peltola and Kati Outinen create very sympathetic characters, which are at once believable and funny. Also excellent is Sakari Kuosmanen (who is even allowed the occasional smirk—tantamount to overacting in this film), as an opportunist landlord with a "vicious" dog.
Kaurismäki's palette of deep, earthy colors, is rendered beautifully in this transfer. The image is sharp, with no obvious print flaws. The transfer is marred only by some unfortunate and noticeable edge enhancement. The Dolby Digital 5.1 presentation is excellent, though there's little for the surrounds to do. I didn't detect any problems with the player-generated English subtitles. A one-page insert lists the 28 chapter stops. There are no extras (unless you count five trailers for other films—which I don't).
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This kind of moviemaking won't appeal to all tastes. While some people will find The Man Without a Past hilarious or moving or both, others will be left to scratch their heads and wonder what all the excitement was about. If you like the minimalist films of directors like Jim Jarmusch and Wim Wenders, I'd say give it a go. If you like the Coen brothers' films like Fargo and The Man Who Wasn't There, Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore, or P.T. Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love, I think it's also worth checking out.
Rare is the opportunity to discover an original filmmaker who may have been traveling under your radar for the last fifteen years. I think Aki Kaurismäki has the kind of talent and visual style that many will respond to. Even if you've never heard of the director or this film, I encourage people to at least rent The Man Without a Past and give it a spin. Here's hoping we'll see more of his films in theaters and on Region 1 DVDs. In particular, I'd love to see releases of Calamari Union (1985), Ariel (1988), The Match Factory Girl (1990), and Drifting Clouds (1996).
If the prosecutor continues to bring spurious charges against wonderful films like this, the court will see to it that he's The Man Without a Future. I gently admonish Columbia TriStar to leave the button marked "edge enhancement" alone in future releases. Case dismissed.
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