Neil Young’s Film Lounge – The Man Without a Past

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

THE MAN WITHOUT A PAST

8/10

Mies Vailla Menneisyytta : Finland 2002 : Aki Kaurismaki : 97 mins

A middle-aged man (Markku Peltola) arrives at Helsinki by train. Within seconds he is beaten up and left for dead by three baseball-bat wielding thieves. He is taken to hospital, where he dies. But within seconds, he leaps off his death-bed and removes his bandages a miraculous recovery. But he has no memory, and no idea who he is. Eventually he winds up among the semi-homeless people of the riverbank, sleeping in a converted container unit rented out by gruff security guard Anttila (Sakari Kuosmanen). From time to time the Salvation Army arrives to dispense songs, soup and charity. The nameless Man befriends S.A. organiser Irma (Kati Outinen), who employs him in the Armys second-hand clothing store. A tentative romance develops

Pitched somewhere in a very Finnish zone between forties film noir, cartoon, fairytale and morality play, The Man Without A Past is a weird kind of whimsical comedy. Theres almost always some kind of music playing in the background an accordion, or perhaps ome Finnish version of 50s pop from the old jukebox the Man uses to furnish his container. Everything is just so, mildly stylised and heightened: the slightly intense colours and lighting, the characters costumes and deadpan dialogue, and the delivery of their lines. Kaurismaki directs them as if they’re all non-professionals (which they’re not) everyone speaks clearly and just a little slowly, leaving a pause at the end of each line. They stand in precise poses, strike particular gestures that veer towards the robotic.

It should be grating – David Mamets disastrous State and Main shows what can happen when actors are nailed down into a particular grid of mannered behaviour and speech. And the melodramatic, crime-heavy plot sounds like something the Coen brothers might take as yet another chance to show off their cleverness (even the title sounds like The Man Who Wasnt There, though it should strictly speaking be The Man Without A Name rather than The Man Without A Past.) But Kaurismakis approach is infinitely gentler and more sympathetic – if there’s an American comparison to be drawn, its perhaps with David Lynch, who also relies on music and interior dcor to create an alluring alternate reality for his oddbod characters.

With the obvious exception of the murderous thugs, Kaurismaki is clearly in love with everyone on screen. As someone says, Its all mercy. If the film has a major fault, it could perhaps be accused of presenting a rather saccharine, picturesque version of urban poverty but Kaurismaki is more of a Samuel Beckett than a Ken Loach, and nobody is pretending that The Man Without A Past has anything but the most tangential connection with the realities of Helsinki 2002.

One nagging question remains, however: the films title. The Man does have a past his loss isn’t so much memory as identity, and his lack of a name plays a recurring and crucial role in the plot, even landing him in a police cell when he gets inadvertently entangled in a bank heist. The police take a dim view of his namelessness, but are halted in their tracks by the sudden arrival of a nondescript gent – a lawyer (Matti Wouri) hired by the Salvation Army who turns out to possess what must be the sharpest legal brain in cinema history.

30th November, 2002
(seen 26th November, Tyneside Cinema)

Click here for the shorter version of this review.

by Neil Young