It must be the weather

Virginia Baxter

Sydney Festival director Brett Sheehy’s decision to hit summertime Sydney with Samuel Beckett was just what the doctor ordered. Something spare to drown out the ‘drunk boats’ on Sydney Harbour; more complex than Nell Schofield’s Summer Edition on Radio National to sharpen the mind. Shades of grey to shut out the blaze of hellish light. Australians no longer recognising themselves (an increasingly prevalent phenomenon) dream for a while they live somewhere else—in “old Europe” where they still see sense, to speak in the old style. January in Sydney was positively Beckettian.

I arrived at the preview screening of Aki Kaurismäki’s The Man Without A Past at 1 minute past the hour and had to stumble in the dark to a seat in the last row. A barely subliminal noise scratched in my ears. The projectionist had to be Krapp.

The movie ran with the mood. After a savage beating by a street gang M (Markku Peltola) loses his memory and comes within a hair’s breadth of being given up for dead. I’ve heard this is usually a life-altering experience and it certainly is for M who escapes from the hospital to construct another version of himself altogether, from scratch. He wanders through familiar Kaurismäki territory—the bleak landscape of the outcast, railway yards and container homes on the cold outer reaches of Helsinki. In fact I realise this is now the only version of Helsinki in my imaginary. Fresh faced Finns in furs lazing on Alvar Aalto furniture were long ago supplanted by the charming dropouts and weirdos of Kaurismäki’s world. In this one, however, we encounter not so much the curious other as the all too familiar unemployed poor, the salt of the earth and the Salvation Army workers who minister to and are part of their community. And there’s Kaurismäki’s usual gifted band of musicians which in this case includes Annikki Tähti, one of the grand dames of Finnish popular music.

The narrative is more conventional than some of his other work, the dialogue delivered mostly deadpan in very measured style, by actors from his regular ensemble and lovingly filmed by Kaurismäki’s longtime collaborator, cinematographer Timo Salminen. The film doesn’t have quite the engulfing strangeness of Leningrad Cowboys or my all-time favourite, the black and white Take Care of Your Scarf, Tatjana but it has its moments—M and Irma sit silently, on a sofa with Hannibal the dog inside M’s shipping container home ,’just being,’ listening to rock ‘n roll on a jukebox salvaged from a dump. The film is full of such poignant moments as M encounters true love and friendship as well as the cold face of bureaucracy. All of these factors may account for the film’s “feelgood success” (as opposed to Kaurismäki’s usual “cult status”) touted in the publicity and the fact that it scooped the pool at Cannes last year. The Man Without a Past won the Grand Prix, Best Actress for Kati Outinen who plays Irma, The Ecumenical Award and Film of the Year awarded by the International Film Critics Circle.

Kaurismäki says: “My last film was black and white and silent, which clearly shows that I am a man of business. However, going forward on that road would demand skipping out the picture next. What would we have then; a shadow. So always ready for compromises, I decided to turn around and made this film here, which has loads of dialogue plus a variety of colours—not to mention other commercial values. I have to admit that deep in my subconscious, there might have been a hope that this step would make me seem normal, too. My social, economical and political views of the state of society, morality and love can hopefully be found from the film itself.” (Press notes.)

After the screening, making my dash to the Beckett Public Address to catch Herbert Blau on “The Vicissitudes of the Arts in the Science of Affliction” and Luce Irigaray on live video link from Paris I run through every kind of weather as “earth, wind, rain and fire lay siege to Sydney in 5 hours of meteorological madness” (SMH) and enter the Town Hall to the dry tones of JM Coetzee who stands below a photograph of Samuel Beckett who stands beside a couple of garbage bins. But then Blau delivers a deliriously dense oration interpolated with shards of Beckett; Irigaray weaves a blissful incantation on how to meet “ze uzzer” (including in oneself). Things are livening up!

The Man Without A Past, written, produced and directed by Aki Kaurismäki.

RealTime issue #53 Feb-March 2003 pg. 20

© Virginia Baxter; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2003