Aki Kaurismäki's much-awarded The Man Without a Past (2002 Grand Jury Prize winner at Cannes) will certainly be too drily quirky for some tastes, but it is a comedy for grown-ups, and for that we must be grateful. The Finnish Kaurismäki plays, in American terms, like a cross of Chaplin and Jarmusch, with his meticulous gestures of absurdity and romance and his rockabilly beat. Kaurismäki has a bit more than merely style on his mind--primarily humble, class-conscious dreams and the nature of identity--but his currency is step-step-turn-step choreography. One thing is certain: no review of The Man Without a Past can forego the adjectives "droll," "deadpan," and "poker-faced," so away we go.
Though laced with droll humor, The Man Without a Past begins with a beating more scary than funny. The assailants drape the victim's suitcase and welder's mask over his still body, making him resemble a fallen knight errant. Though he had only just set foot off a train and into Helsinki, the man (identified in the credits as "M") finds himself--mangled, bandage-wrapped, and amnesiac--in a hospital bed. The deadpan nurse and doctor declare him a lost cause and leave the room. The man sits to attention, gazes at his mummifed reflection, resets his wayward nose, and releases himself. Step-turn-step-step-turn.
"M" (Markku Peltola) quickly insinuates himself with the locals. Found passed-out by one family, "M" is taken in to their storage-shed home. Soon, "M" has a metal shanty of his own, thanks to a corrupt patrolman who claims to be known as "The Whip of God" and walks around with a singularly unimpressive attack dog named, unfittingly, Hannibal. When the family's patriarch (but not "the boss," as he ruefully points out) tells "M," "It's Friday. Let's go out to dinner," Kaurismäki cuts to a soup-line, where "M" encounters the Finnish branch of the Salvation Army and his new lady-love, the outwardly starchy but tender-hearted Irma (Kati Outinen).
The director's economical visual design complements a series of head-spinning and deadpan battles of wits. In one, a lawyer beats down a police chief with opaque precedents. In another, a man randomly huffs, "Keep my metabolism out of this." One clash climaxes in the insistent plea, "Talk properly." Thankfully, Kaurismäki refuses to comply.
Kaurismäki hardly defuses the crises of poverty and personality, but he does encourage laughing at their quiet absurdity. In one moment of poker-faced melodrama, "M" steps toward the camera, eyes full of concern and sadness. He takes a drag off his cigarette; a lonesome foghorn blows in the distance. "M"'s make-shift life may be laughable, but it's never pitiable. In Kaurismäki's Helsinki, the coalyard needs a night watchman, a driving rockabilly dance tune is a lullaby, and there's honor among plebes. "Life goes on, not backwards," insists "M"'s emasculated drinking buddy.
Nevertheless, "M"--a.k.a. "the child of sorrow"--does find resolution of his past. In fact, Kaurismäki taps into the letdown of identity, after indulging the liberation of a new life seemingly limitless in possibility. In this crossroads of freedom and restoration, of future and past, "M" finds more hope than despair. So, too, can strivers of any nation.