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Saturday
Oct172009

The Man Without a Past

Amnesia is one of the most common conceits of the noir genre, and one should not wonder why.  A loss of one's identity and past inevitably begets an investigation, and the greatest investigation that art allows us to make is self-discovery.  Having an amnesiac mimicking memories, pain, joy and reflexes also reminds us of how instructive our past can be: we may never overcome the tribulations of years before, but from these mistakes and injustices we may improve our lot. The audience may also learn details about a character without or before his knowing them, even if this knowledge does little to lessen the mystery.  Which brings us to this celebrated film.

Our Man (the late Markku Peltola), who bears a certain resemblance to this Irish actor, sits with his luggage on a train alone, silent, and smoking – his three defining traits.  Although his purpose of travel is later revealed, his precise destination is not.  He exits the train and sleeps in some otherwise innocuous park on some otherwise innocuous bench – but we know that public places are hardly safe havens in Kaurismäki's world. Perhaps it is of importance that his run of very bad luck begins in his dreams; perhaps this fact helps palliate the suffering he is about to endure.  After running afoul of a triptych of marauding bandits who beat him badly and abscond with everything of immediate value, our Man is left for dead beneath his bag's remaining contents.  Only his welder's mask is gently repositioned on his face, suggesting a robot alien trapped in a grounded starship.  His next stop is the local infirmary wrapped in bandages reminiscent of this fictional creation.  Although the staff seem dubious, our mummy soon awakes, escapes the hospital after an unsuccessful attempt to unbandage himself – a masterful detail given most on-screen victims' intuitive skill in such matters – and wanders without aim or assistance until he collapses beside a nearby port.  Here he is rescued by the token benevolent and poor family, and a mere eight minutes into the film, his adventure begins.

An adventure, but for some reason not a quest.  As off-putting as an amnesiac may seem, one that has no real interest in regaining his past must be nothing less than terrifying.  Our Man is neither embarrassed nor scared that he cannot remember his name, his childhood ("a gloomy night," he tells an acquaintance), or his line of work; he is simply annoyed that everyone wishes to pigeonhole him on the basis of this information (the welder's mask, for example, is corroborated by a suggestion made later that he has worker's hands, an accusation to which he does not take kindly).  Yet the lives of the people encountered along the way towards societal reintregation are even less appealing than his own.  His first friend, an alcoholic in an unhappy marriage who says his wife "hits him, but not in front of the kids," is fascinated by our Man because he too would like to start his life again.  His only happy memories, it would appear, are of his licentious youth.  "You're only young once," he mutters.  But some platitudes are particularly painful. 

There is also the requisite villain, a pedantic policeman who calls himself "The Whip of God" (presumably, a flagellum dei) and turns out to have been a victim just like our Man, and the even more requisite damsel Irma (Kati Outinen).  Irma works at the Salvation Army and first spots the tall and handsome amnesiac while helping to feed Helsinki's homeless and underprivileged.   They, of course, say nothing to one another; but the looks exchanged betray some of the only emotion our Man expresses during his entire plight.  After espying some welders on the docks, he suddenly remembers that portion of his past existence, shows off his skills and is hired on the spot.  Even the bureaucratic impediment of having no name seems to be negligible if he can open a "numbered bank account, like in Switzerland" (in Finland, as it were, this turns out to be impossible).  While he and the only employee chat, the bank is robbed by a client with the requested sum in his account, if frozen because of his having had a loan called in.  The Man's refusal to give a name leads to his temporary incarceration, a fabulous scene with a lawyer and the local head of police, and a reencounter with the bank robber in one of the many bars on Helsinki's landscape.  The holdup also results in a tabloid front-page picture with a headline usually reserved for comic book heroes or criminal masterminds: "Who is this man?"  As if anyone would bother to identify a chain-smoking welder from Northern Finland.

The film is the middle part of Kaurismäki's Finland trilogy, and his motifs and symbols will be familiar to connoisseurs: laconic dialogue, eternal dawn or twilight, emotionally taciturn characters who communicate with their eyes and bodies what their hearts and lips hold back, and a healthy dose of music from the fifties and sixties.  The music is, as always, thematically linked to the progressions in the film (in this case, a dreary Christian band who expands their repertoire to blues upon the Man's recommendation), just as a Greek chorus might have foreshadowed coming events or underscored feelings and thoughts vital to the plot's advancement.  Along the way, we perceive thinly-veiled criticism of the State, capitalism and the methods, although not the teachings, of the Church.  As one character aptly comments, "God's grace reigns in heaven.  On earth you have to fend for yourself."  Even if who you are doesn't mean a thing to you.

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