A number of constants run across the many films of Aki Kaurismäki. Cigarettes will be smoked, rock & roll music will be played, nobody will have much money. Often, there will be a dog. The dog will be played by the director’s dog at that time. People will talk to each other slowly and clearly, without outwardly expressing very much emotion — often they’ll be the same people, because Kaurismäki has a stable of preferred actors who show up over and over again. People will suffer, quietly, but a playful, deadpan sense of humor will prevail.
The Man Without a Past is, perhaps, peak Kaurismäki — in a way, it could be described as his greatest hits, hitting all of his regular themes with the pinpoint accuracy of a director 20 years into his career. But in another way, it’s the kind of film that rewards having spent plenty of time in his world already. It’s sorta hard to say with Kaurismäki, whose movies are unusual but consistent; if you like one of them, there’s a fair chance you’ll like all of the others. If you don’t like one of them, maybe you haven’t watched enough of them yet.
Certainly, this is the film that won Kaurismäki the most accolades, taking the Grand Prix at Cannes (and also winning the best award, Palm Dog) and becoming the director’s only movie to get a Foreign Language Academy Award nomination. And now, twenty years after its release, it gets the greatest prize of all — an article here on the Solute, where I make the compelling argument that everyone was right all along. It’s an absolutely brilliant movie that represents the peak of the director’s powers. But what’s it all about, eh?
Well, the movie opens with a man arriving in Helsinki by train. He falls asleep next to his suitcase on a park bench, where a group of young thugs attack him, steal his belongings and leave him for dead. At the hospital, they give up on him, but he pulls through, only to pass out by the riverside. Then a hobo takes the opportunity to steal his boots. The first kindness he experiences is from a family living in a shipping container near the river: they take him in, feed him, give him a place to rest and nurse him back to health. He thanks them, but can’t tell them his name. Because, you see…he has amnesia!!!
This could be the setup for any bleak European arthouse drama — the violence and bad luck that our nameless protagonist experiences is brutal and pointless. But Kaurismäki is already finding ways to mix in his trademark sense of humor: the thugs that steal his possessions and memory find a radio in the suitcase, so they turn it on to soundtrack their crimes. The bandages around his head make our hero look like the Invisible Man. And the moment where he re-aligns his broken nose beneath those bandages is definitely funny in a twisted sort of way.
It’s the amnesia reveal that really gets the movie rolling, though. Years of ridiculous soap opera twists have made memory loss a pretty tough premise to pull off, but in typical Kaurismäki fashion, here’s it’s just another setback in a lifetime full of them. Not having a name may get in the way of employment options and even lead to jail time after the police don’t believe his story, but there’s always something that can be done. He can find somewhere to live, thanks to the security guard/landlord/all-purpose-eccentric who manages the shipping containers, he can find employment (thank you, Salvation Army), he can… manage a rock & roll band?
Part of the joy of this movie, and Kaurismäki’s films in general, is that it’s so easy to imagine the bleak realist drama that it could have been. Put this character in the hands of the Dardenne Brothers (to pick some acclaimed Europeans out of a hat) and it could be a harrowing couple of hours exploring the way society neglects people who don’t fit in. But in Kaurismäki’s world, a man might set up a jukebox before he’s figured out a place to sleep, a seemingly tough landlord might be all bark and no bite (see also: his dog), a group of musicians who provide solemn accompaniment to charity soup kitchens might get introduced to rock music by a man who can’t remember his own name.
That’s not to say this movie isn’t bleak, or that it doesn’t go to some dark places. It does, and the obstacles seem insurmountable at times. But read any Kaurismäki interview and you’ll get an idea of his personality: he’s grumpy and self-deprecating, but you can always tell that there’s a twinkle in his eye as he puts down his own work and laments the state of the world. This movie is a perfect encapsulation of his philosophy, even if he’d most likely deny it — life’s tough, but there’s always a glimmer of hope. People randomly attack strangers for small change, but they also look after animals, help each other out, fall in love, and grow potatoes. Directors retire, but then they take it back and announce a new movie. A small group of cinephiles rejoice.
I think it’s fair to say that there are elements of this film that play better to Kaurismäki experts — he can drop in frequent collaborators with the understanding that repeat viewers will already know their deal, and pay tribute to a departed regular by having a whole scene play out in front of his portrait. It’s full of enough wonderful elements that I think it’d be a fine introduction too, though: cinematographer Timo Salminen (another regular) makes everything look absolutely gorgeous, the dialogue is consistently witty, the story’s full of surprises, and the music is great. Really, Kaurismäki is such a consistent filmmaker that almost all of his movies would make a good entry point. The key thing is for everyone to watch them all the time. These are my demands.