Aki Kaurismäkiís films are minimalist, reductive, and ruefully funny. Heíll cut away everything (his last film, Juha, was silent) to find the essence of cinema and humanity, except irony, or at least a cheap laugh. The key is the long reaction shot, the deadpan pause before a cut is made to the next outlandish tableau (Jim Jarmusch uses the same technique, but with less success). As a result, a lot of empty space blows through his films, brief (80 minutes or less for the most part) though they are, and that affords a lot of down time to viewers who want to reflect on exactly what it is theyíre laughing at.
In The Man Without a Past, which won the Grand Jury Prize at last yearís Cannes Film Festival, the butt of the joke is the source of identity itself, the defining figment of memory. A man (Markku Peltola) whoís just stepped off the train in Helsinki gets beaten by muggers and suffers complete amnesia. Itís not a new premise: recent variations range from Laura Harring in Mulholland Drive to Jim Carrey in The Majestic. Kaurismäkiís version has a certain perfunctory resonance all its own, and it also draws unobtrusively on a wealth of allusions. Wearing the welderís mask placed on his face by one of his attackers in a playful coup de grâce, the unconscious man lies in the gutter like a sleeping Golem. Later, wrapped in bandages and declared dead in a fly-blown hospital, he lurches back to life like Frankensteinís monster or the Invisible Man or the Mummy, men like himself without a past or a present or a future. Heís Everyman as no man.
Unlike most amnesiacs in movies, though, heís neither mistaken for someone else nor especially interested in finding out who he is. Instead he looks for a place to sleep and something to eat, and he finds these necessities at a hobo camp where the squatters have taken up residence in abandoned cargo containers ruled over by Anttila (Sakari Kuosmanen), the local security guard, who like his dog Hannibal proves less fearsome than he first appears.
Neither is the man as helpless as he first appears. Despite his brutal victimization, and the expectations created by such previous Kaurismäki ventures into the down-and-out as The Match Factory Girl (1989) and La vie de bohème (1992), the amnesiac proves resilient and resourceful. He cleans up the metal bin rented to him by Anttila at usurious rates, and the close-up of the swept-up detritus of the previous tenant is a sample of Kaurismäkiís eye for the resonantly squalid. He accepts a fellow pauperís invitation to join him for " dinner " at the Salvation Army soup line, a serendipitous meal that leads to his getting a new suit of clothes, a job, and a girlfriend. Irma (iconic Kaurismäki actress Kati Outinen, who was named Best Actress last year at Cannes) seems more resigned than comfortable in her Salvation Army volunteer uniform, and dour and repressed and iron-jawed though she is, she exchanges the glad eye with this amnesiac as she ladles a helping on his plate. After some prickly exchanges, some orotund insults (as reserved as the characters are in expressing their emotions, they are quite florid in dialogue, at least in translation), and a lot of stony stares, true love runs its course.
Itís a familiar pattern for Kaurismäki, though this time with a different outcome, and one that derives perhaps from Werner Herzogís Bruno S. films, in particular Stroszek (1977). In Ariel (1988), the lumpen hero starts a new life when an acquaintance kills himself. In I Hired a Contract Killer (1990), the desperately dignified milksop protagonist, hilariously portrayed by Jean-Pierre Léaud, tries to dispense with the burden of a life lived, of loves lost, of goods consumed and money owed by paying a professional hit man to whack him. In both cases a womanís grace intervenes, and that leads to more or less tragic and ironic consequences.
Here, however, Kaurismäki seems to aspire to more than black humor. A half-hearted political subtext emerges, as in an ill-thought-out subplot involving a bank robbery, and in the unconvincing solidarity of the tramp community in general (asked what he would like in repayment after doing the hero a favor, one replies, " If you see me lying face down in a gutter, turn me over " ). Maybe Kaurismäki should leave the populist sentimentality to Frank Capra.
At times, also, the film calls to mind the wry desolation of Samuel Beckett, though itís hard to imagine Beckett countenancing such an upbeat Christian narrative. Maybe, like his hero, Kaurismäki has been born again and is arguing that we must lose everything, including our past and our name, in order to be reborn and gain Salvation, or at least the Salvation Army.