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The Man Without a Past (Aki Kaurismäki) 2002
Initially, it seems as if you could dismiss Aki Kaurismäki’s The Man Without a Past as an empty exercise in taking an absurdist distance from subject matter, but it’s got a bit more going on than that. Take the title, for example, which seems rather straightforward at first in describing the predicament of the protagonist, who becomes an amnesiac after he’s brutally assaulted in a park, but then takes on numerous meanings, especially in the third act. It comes into question just which past it is that is being relinquished. Which life an audience member construes as being abandoned depends on the one that they feel is most important to the lead’s happiness, and that decision might illuminate a class bias in them that might have otherwise remained latent. Beyond the narrative, however, an argument could be made that the title refers to Kaurismäki’s inability to settle on a reference point to which he can direct his desire to pay homage. This movie, like many of his others, references many forms of genre fiction and Americana. There are nods to futuristic science fiction, the Technicolor look of old Hollywood films, and old rockabilly tunes nestled in with what feels like dozens of others.
One of Past’s major themes is the absurdity of rules and laws and of the moral judgments placed upon those in the lower economic and social classes. The bums that the hero falls in with in this movie are as generous as the Salvation Army, if not more so (the scene where a compliment is construed by one of the organization’s workers as a tactic devised to get more soup is rather funny). Because the lead, identified in the credits only as “M”, cannot remember his name and has no identification papers, he cannot obtain work, and paradoxically cannot collect unemployment benefits. By critiquing the rigidity of laws and prejudices that are so fundamental to the makeup of his native Finland’s social order, Kaurismäki infuses his film with an anarchic seed of chaos that much of the comedy grows out of. Anarchy makes for good comedy, though, since it has a tendency to so completely upend our expectations. The presence of such antiestablishment thinking in a film so formally controlled seems only another gag to the director. The cavalier attitude of the movie seems utterly unconcerned with whether or not the audience picks up on any of the jokes, all of which are delivered with an unaffected, deadpan style.
Watching Past, it’s easy to just sit there admiring small touches, while remaining rather indifferent to overall message of the film, wishing Kaurismäki had something more potent to say, as he did in previous work like The Match Factory Girl. As funny as the non-sequiturs and visual gags are, they don’t make the movie they’re in feel at all substantial. Most of the pranks play off of our diminished opinions of the squatters (They “go out to eat” at a traveling soup kitchen and aspire to apply to live in a government council sanctioned flat, where they’re “taking applications in a year or two.”), and when you push that sort of exploitative humor up against the vaguely moralistic message that lurks somewhere even deeper than the anarchic one, you end up with an uneasy mix of seemingly conflicting interests. As a result, it works better as a collection of disconnected, drolly realized scenes, than as a unified work of art. That’s not to say that The Man Without a Past is a failure. Many of those individual scenes had me laughing out loud. For those who are more capable than me of accepting the mix of elements that seem to exist mostly to please the director himself, it will be an unqualified success.
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