The Man Without A Past has all the characteristics of a Kaurismäki movie, yet it feels inexplicably transgressive. A varied orchestral score, the warmer colour palette or the turn to a glass half-full, optimistic ending, these changes are big, yet they never build to anything resembling a compromise or a quash to the Fin’s deadpan tropes. With no fear of “selling-out”, Kaurismäki’s tenth feature, and his only thus far to bestow an Academy Award nomination, cements his place on the mantle of visionary Scandinavian filmmakers, with Bergman and Dreyer welcomingly him with open arms.
Following on from the humdrum recession drama Drifting Clouds, The Man Without A Past is the second chapter of the Finnish Trilogy. The titular character is M (Markku Peltola). Clutching a box close to his chest, he steps off a train in Helsinki with the glum veneer of a man desperate to escape life’s burdens. His wish becomes an unwelcome reality when he is savagely mugged and beaten. Pronounced dead at the hospital, M miraculously returns to the land of the living. Only it is not the world he recalls; he has lost his memory. Clad in bandages, the mummified amnesiac discharges himself from care and is taken in by the poor 2-point-4 Nieminen family, living in their converted shipping container. Bereft of a past, M chooses to build a new future for himself. Upgrading to a pricey riverside shack owned by a hilariously stern security guard (Sakari Kuosmanen), M falls for the earnest Salvation Army volunteer Irma (Kaurismäki’s go-to-girl and ever mesmerising Kati Outinen). Contented, it’s only a matter of time before the police interfere, trying to force M back to the life he left behind.
Markku Peltola is the epitome of wordless stoicism. A man born anew, he potters about Helsinki penniless, reusing old tea bags and hunting down food scraps. Fortunately, the people of Helsinki are less threatening than the thugs who put him in this dilapidated condition, offering warmth, friendship and eventually love.
With little dialogue, there’s some resemblance to Buster Keaton’s Johnnie Gray in The General too. Unlike Keaton – who haphazardly hunts for his girl and locomotive, M prefers to remain incognito, with the drunkard man of the Nieminen house suggesting M’s hands look like that of labourers, let alone his tired, lined face, the second shot at life M has been granted with is more of a blessing than a burden.
The Man Without A Past is Kaurismäki at his most indefinable. It isn’t a suspense picture, a film noir, a farce, an existential drama, or a pappy romance; yet it is all these things simultaneously, and harmoniously. A wry and generous film that uses the loss of memory story as a vantage point to paint an affectionately whimsical portrait of those on the fringes of Finnish society.