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The Man Without A Past

June 28, 2009 ・ Blog

The Man Without A Past

I don’t know much about Finnish humour, but if The Man Without A Past is anything to go by, it’s about as grimly ironic as one might expect. Aki Kaurismäki’s 2002 film presents a story about Helsinki’s underclass that’s wracked with bleak suicide and rapacious extortion, sour bureaucracy and brutal robbery, but one also marked by disarmingly black comedy.

A flavour: the main character, who has been beaten by muggers so viciously that he has lost his memory, has found a dockland security guard willing to rent out to him a shipping container in which to live. Having no money, the man promises payment the next day, to which the guard threatens that he’ll have his dog tear his nose off if he doesn’t come through - and then remarks, “It’s no more smoking in the shower for you”. Because without a nose the water would stream directly on to the fag?

Our man lets the comment slide without even a shrug. Indeed, every performance is taciturn in the extreme - almost to the extent of being wooden. Hardly a character betrays emotion, their stoicism sharpening the humour and producing a sense of otherworldliness that the soundtrack of rock ’n’ roll, blues and traditional Finnish songs binds with the film’s more realist visions of desperate poverty.

The Man Without A Past is also a love story. Our hero visits a Salvation Army food hall and falls for one of the staff, who falls for him in turn. The life he constructs over the Finnish summer - a woman, a job, growing eight potatoes in the mean plot outside his container, a jukebox, managership of a rock band - leads to hope for his future, even with the threat of winter ahead.

Naturally, that future will only be decided by resolving his past. And there the film surprises, too - it’d be a shame to blow the ending, but suffice it to say that losing his past wasn’t necessarily such a bad thing. It’s the humour that does it, though; lighting a cigarette even as the oxygen runs out in sealed bank vault, a shipping container luckily free in which to live - but only because its previous occupant froze to death the previous winter. Poverty is grim, but it has some good jokes.