Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Man Without a Past (Aki Kaurismäki, 2002)

The Man Without a Past occupies the nebulous realms between emotions and moods. It's deadpan-comic and entropic-tragic, ironic and optimistic, detached and intimate. Its characters speak with such icy remove that they make Coens brothers side players look as animated as Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders. And don't let the title fool you: though we have no background information on the unnamed protagonist or the Finnish seaside around him, the past is everywhere, from the postindustrial rust where he rebuilds his life to the rough lines and vaguely haunted look that hangs around the edges of Markku Peltola's face.

Precisely composed with shots that seldom move, Aki Kaurismäki directs with simplicity yet artistry. This is the kind of movie that can wholly lack a plot yet still unfold with a sense of internal logic that makes every diversion inexplicably inevitable. That's no mean feat for a film where even the dialogue routinely floats out of comprehension, with the lead character suddenly going off on a tangent about visiting the moon as another humors him. When asked whether he met someone, the man replies, "Not really, it was a Sunday."

We meet Peltola as he rides a train to Helsinki. He disembarks with a well-worn suitcase he clings to as if driftwood. That night, without a place to stay, he falls asleep on a park bench, where three ruffians spot him and club the already unconscious man before stealing his possessions. Believed dead even by the doctors who treat him, the man nevertheless wakes up when alone and casually readjusts his broken nose in the mirror. He passes out a second time on the waterfront, where a homeless man happens up the still bandaged man and swaps out his worn shoes for our mystery protagonist's nice kicks. Poor guy just can't win.

The flat minimalism of these scenes suggests an overwhelming cynicism, and the crisp blue of Finland's sky and icy waters cannot help but seem an ironic contrast to the travails being heaped upon a man beaten into amnesia before the audience even gets to know him. Yet when the man happens across a family that helps him despite clear poverty, Kaurismäki slowly introduces a warm, communal, human counterpoint to the chilly humor that not only prevents the film from disappearing into frigid nihilism but actually makes everything funnier. The wife bosses around the husband without coming off as a shrew, handing him a grocery list and some cash before rolling her eyes and forking over a "tip" with a warning not to stay out too late, as if she were married to a teenager. Later, the husband insists he buy the mystery man a beer, mixing kindness with an act of rebellion against his disapproving spouse. These touches, oddly framed and delivered as they are, feel truer to life than snappier dialogue, capturing as they do the good-natured self-satisfaction of charity.

As Kaurismäki adds more characters to the mix, he clarifies not so much the man's past—though eventually he does that too—as the man's present and future. Unlike the amnesiac protagonist of Paris, Texas, whose own obliterated memory only put off a necessary reckoning, the man here has the opportunity to restart his life. As such, the director balances the pain of being left without an identity with the optimism of being able to start afresh. Of course, the sunnier side of the film is just as dry as the humor, so it can be difficult to spot. But Kaurismäki's good nature comes out in small scenes, such as the man walking into a café and asking if the hot water is free. It is, and he grabs a cup and sits down, surreptitiously pulling out a tea bag of his own and slipping it into the cup as the cashier looks on, annoyed. Yet she goes into the back room, and instead of bringing back someone to throw him out, she reveals a plate of leftovers she gives to the hungry, broke protagonist. The tone of her voice makes this act of kindness sound like a hassle and something unworthy of discussion, yet one cannot mistake the goodness of her action, and while the whole situation feels like just another gag, it also adds a sweet flavor to the often cold mood engendered by minimalism.

Indeed, I found myself caring for all of the loopy characters who flitter around Peltola. Standouts include the landlord who fancies himself a dictator but cannot even get his adorable dog to move when he commands it to attack, and the new husband of the woman who unlocks the lead's identity, a guy who offers to fight out of duty and looks relieved but also unsure of what to do when the conflict is calmly resolved. Best of all is Kaurismäki muse Kati Outinen as a Salvation Army officer with a look on her face that suggests she envies the spark of hope given to the protagonist by erasing his past. She's the only character more despairing and broken than he, and Outinen's morose helpfulness is the one aspect of the film that cannot be mistaken for comedy even as she proves an able wit. Kaurismäki clearly feels for her too, and while the narrative comes full-circle with a darkly positive return to the roving thugs (wherein the locals stand up to the bullies but also literally step over a prostrate vicim to get their vengeance), he has to stage another coda to give Outinen a wholly unironic ending.


  1. I've only heard Kaurismaki by name but has never seen any of his films. Where is the best place to start?

  2. Well, you can be like me and start here. This is his most acclaimed in terms of awards attention, and it's only loosely tied to a thematic arc (seemingly everything he does fits into a trilogy of some kind).

  3. Wonderful review of an offbeat film. Your description of this film as deadpan-comic is spot on.

    I've just seen his latest film, LE HAVRE, at the Chicago International Film Festival. This is another charming, droll and very thought provoking work from Kaurismaki. Here is the link to my review:


  4. I'll read that soon, Tom, I promise, but I actually have a screener of LE HAVRE to review this week so I'll be holding off til I finish my own article.