Thanks for No Memories 

In the deadpan Man Without a Past, amnesia becomes a gift

In the deadpan Man Without a Past, amnesia becomes a gift

The setup of The Man Without a Past sounds like Hitchcock: A brutally beaten man awakens from near-death without a clue to his former identity. But the drolly deadpan execution belongs to no one but its director, Aki Kaurismaki. A wry Finn who shot part of his Leningrad Cowboys Go America 15 years ago in Memphis, Kaurismaki has a poker-faced, heavy-lidded style that turns pulp into absurdist comedy. His 23rd film, a spin on the memory-loss thriller, exudes a deep, mischievous wit. There are never any cues to laugh at the somber events and dour characters, whose expressions resemble ice freezing in a tray. Yet something about their gruff stoicism becomes ever more ticklish—perhaps because Kaurismaki’s vision is happier and more humane than we expect.

The Man Without a Past opens with startling violence: The titular protagonist (Markku Peltola) is attacked by thugs in a park and left for dead. But the movie, just like its amnesiac hero, rouses itself for a new beginning. The man staggers out of his hospital bed into a makeshift family of other Helsinki misfits, all strapped and dislocated by the lurching economy. He is befriended by an aloof Salvation Army worker (Kati Outinen, who won the best actress award at Cannes last year), a crusty security guard (Juhani Niemalä) and a supposedly vicious watchdog.

Given a chance to reinvent themselves, Kaurismaki’s shaggy-dog story and its blank-slate protagonist opt for something sunnier in their stoic way. As the hero finds a new, better identity, and a community where it belongs, the movie’s cold, glum hobo-jungle setting comes groggily alive with splashes of color and liberating blasts of ramshackle rock ’n’ roll. “Cheerful” may be too happy-faced a word for the movie’s heavy-spirited Scandinavian temperament, but its unsentimental accumulation of small kindnesses is surprisingly sweet. Once you adjust to The Man Without a Past’s wintry humor, its every flicker of warmth registers like a hot flash.

—Jim Ridley


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