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THE MAN WITHOUT A PAST (MIES VAILLA MENNEISYYTTA)

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B+

The thought of yet another movie based on the old amnesia ploy may well be enough to fill you with dread, but Finnish writer-director Aki Kaurismaki offers a take on the hoary old premise that’s a deadpan delight. “The Man Without a Past” isn’t a suspense picture, or a farce, or a heavy drama, or a take-off; it’s a wry, acutely observed and generous film that merely uses the loss of memory plot as a springboard to paint an affectionately whimsical portrait of those on the fringes of Helsinki society. Its self-conscious refusal to hurry things along and its penchant for droll understatement may put some viewers off, but those with patience and an appreciation for subtlety will be amply rewarded.

The film begins with an unnamed man (dour, sad-faced Markku Peltola) being beaten and robbed shortly after reaching Helsinki by train. Taken to the hospital, he’s pronounced dead but abruptly wakens and escapes. Not knowing who he is, he’s taken in by the Nieminen family (father Juhani Niemela, mother Kaija Pakarinen and two angelic boys) who live in a riverside shack, and shortly moves into his own nearby shed after making arrangements with an amusingly stern security guard (Sakari Kuosmanen). Soon he encounters Irma (Kati Outinen), a rigidly self-controlled soldier in the Salvation Army, through whose intervention he gets a job in the charity’s office; and a hesitant romance begins between them. The nameless man also has a curious effect on the Army’s little band, which he encourages to play more popular music for the local community of down-and-outers, before abruptly recalling that in earlier days he worked as a welder. When he tries to open a bank account in order to take a construction job, however, he finds himself involved as a hostage in a bank robbery, and the upshot is that his photo is circulated, leading to his identification as a married man from a rural district. He and Irma part, but as it turns out not for long.

This straightforward precis doesn’t do justice to the film, because Kaurismaki stages it in a wonderfully off-kilter way that nonetheless avoids condescension, always treating its supposed “losers” with warmth and bemused respect; their regard for one another in the face of society’s dismissal or outright hostility is quietly uplifting, but at the same time their exaggerated sense of decorum and incongruously elevated mode of speech make for lots of humor. Then there are hilarious episodes that come entirely out of left field: a legal duel over the man’s fate between an officious cop and a mushy-mouthed attorney, for example, or a drily funny conversation between the protagonist and his wife’s very close friend near the end. There’s even a gag involving a dog–usually a sign of comedic desperation (see “Bruce Almighty”)–that works beautifully. The effect is a film that’s not often laugh-out-loud funny, but that generates a continuous stream of smiles with its quirky, offbeat tone.

The cast is fully in tune with Kaurismaki’s approach. Poker-faced Peltola, dignified and unhurried, is matched by Outinen’s phlegmatic, serious Irma, and every other cast member, down to the intent Nieminen kids, provide beautifully judged turns. Perhaps Matti Wouri, as the lawyer, and Outi Maenpaa, as a singularly imperturbable bank clerk, stand out, but the entire ensemble is excellent. There’s nothing glitzy about the production–Kaurismaki favors a spare, unadorned style–but it fits perfectly with the apparent simplicity of the plot. An eclectic score complements things nicely.

“The Man Without a Past” is a lovely antidote to the overwrought, in-your-face comedies that Hollywood specializes in, and its characters pleasant alternatives to the frenetic folk who populate them. It’s a graceful, quietly humorous tribute to the sort of fringe-dwellers rarely seen in mainstream movies, let alone treated with such affection and respect.

MAN ON THE TRAIN (L’HOMME DU TRAIN)

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B

Patrice Leconte’s new film is an elegant, amusing odd-couple divertissement that also reflects on the paths not chosen in life without getting too heavy-handed about it. The director has pointed to westerns as the ultimate inspiration for the picture, and it’s not difficult to feel the spirit of Sergio Leone hovering over the proceedings, especially in terms of its set-up; but perhaps it’s best taken as a sort of existentialist Gallic twist on the masterful Highsmith-Hitchcock “Strangers on a Train,” which so memorably had the straightlaced tennis pro played by Farley Granger exchanging murders with Robert Walker’s deliciously degenerate nabob, Bruno Anthony. In “Man on the Train,” Manesquier (Jean Rochefort), a perpetually bemused retired schoolmaster in a provincial French town, offers Milan (Johnny Hallyday), the titular recent arrival whom he bumps into at a pharmacy, a place to stay in his big, ramshackle house. Milan is a leather-jacketed, gun-toting stranger who’s as laconic and emotionally withdrawn as Manesquier is voluble and expressive, and his interest in the town’s lone bank is surely suspicious. What becomes clear as the pair interact is that both yearn to be more like the other, and over the course of a few days each learns from his new-found friend. In the end they do actually exchange identities–though in a hallucinatory way that marks this as very much an “art” film.

If you take “Man on the Train” on a purely literal level, it’s not likely to please. The story is implausible on its face, and the lead figures are more iconic creations than realistic human beings. Worse still, the picture goes off the tracks in the last reel, abandoning its relative simplicity in favor of an elaborately choreographed switch that’s too ostentatiously clever (and enigmatic) for its own good. But the quirkiness and surrealistic touches, which might have been simply precious, are made not only tolerable but pleasurable by Leconte’s austerely patrician style, Rochefort’s roguish charm and Hallyday’s deadpan authority. The interplay between the two men has a rich vein of oddball humor and occasional suggestions of poignancy, but the director and stars don’t allow it to descend into mawkishness. And while the secondary performers don’t have much opportunity to shine, there’s a running gag about the newest of Milan’s confederates that’s peculiar enough to score. As with all of Leconte’s work, the film is a delight to the eye, too, with the director’s subtlety beautifully matched by Ivan Maussion’s production design and Jean-Marie Drejou’s gorgeous widescreen photography. There’s also an pleasantly eclectic music score by Pascal Esteve which makes extensive use of both western guitar riffs and Schubert piano sonatas.

In comparison to Leconte’s other films, “Man on the Train” feels a little lightweight; perhaps that’s why he felt the need to turn up the level, not entirely successfully, at the end. But its overall stylishness, its able leads and its slyly serene sensibility keep it intriguing throughout.