Published Jan 01, 2006It's tempting to think of Aki Kaurismaki (The Match Factory Girl, La vie de bohème) as the Jim Jarmusch of northern Europe. With his deadpan absurdity, fascination with society's fringe, tweaking of genre conventions and studied yet stark compositions, the prolific Scandinavian shares a similar tone and worldview with the grey-haired troubadour of American independent cinema.
In The Man Without a Past, the winner of the Grand Jury Prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival, the idiosyncratic auteur tells the deceptively simple story of M (Markku Peitola). After being badly beaten in a Helsinki park, M is left with total amnesia. He soon finds himself living in a dock container on the waterfront furnished with little more than a cot, hotplate and a still working jukebox full of '50s-era rock'n'roll. (Kaurismaki is obsessed with American roots music, particularly blues and rockabilly.) Destitute and alone, yet invigorated by his freedom, M befriends a bunch of similarly afflicted outcasts, lands a low-paying job with the Salvation Army and eventually even a missionary girlfriend (exquisitely pathetic Kaurismaki regular Kati Outinen).
Despite his love of the blues, Kaurismaki's work is undeniably Finnish. Traditional Scandinavian ballads punctuate intimate scenes, the metallic scrape of the Helsinki streetcars against their rails flavours the soundtrack and the children are as blonde as the local whitefish. M's world is one where the saviours of the wretched are as hopelessly lost and incapable as those being saved, sometimes even more so. But the filmmaker makes no judgements against them or those they care for. The one value of ultimate importance to all those in Kaurismaki's work, after all, is not traditionally Finnish but decidedly human the need to be validated by love.