Although they’re opening on separate screens, in spirit Patrice Leconte’s Man on the Train and Aki Kaurismäki’s The Man Without a Past constitute a nifty double bill. Both films start with a solitary man on a train, and each is named for a character who’s taciturn, anonymous, and about to have a life-changing experience. The parallels continue, yet the two movies are very different in tone. Man on the Train is quintessentially French, while The Man Without a Past is utterly Kaurismäkian.
In Leconte’s film, the newcomer is a mysterious tough guy (played by “French Elvis” Johnny Hallyday) who never introduces himself, although the credits give his name as Milan. (That might be the name of his hometown; in French films, such characters are often Italian.) He’s arrived off-season in a small French resort town, but the Ry Cooder-ish guitar riffs that accompany him suggest he’s an outlaw swaggering into a gold-rush settlement in the Sierra Nevadas. So do his gait, his curtness, and his fringed leather jacket. Even a tight-lipped loner sometimes needs assistance, thoughand Milan has a headache.
He ambles into one of those old-fashioned French drugstores where most of the products are kept behind the counter. There’s one other customer: Manesquier (Jean Rochefort), a retired teacher. The two leave at the same time and Manesquier begins to chatter. Milan seems faintly annoyed by his new acquaintance’s talkativeness, but when he discovers that the pharmacist has given him an analgesic designed to be dissolved in liquid, he has little choice but to accept Manesquier’s offer of a glass of water. Soon he’s agreed to much more. The town’s hotel is closed, so for a few days Milan moves into Manesquier’s home, a grand but somewhat shabby mansion that exemplifies its owner’s decline.
Milan has something to do on Saturday, the same day that Manesquier has an important medical appointment. Until then, the two men eat, drink, and reminisce together, and Milan becomes slightly more outgoing. Manesquier still does most of the talking, though, as well as the bulk of the dreaming. He’s convinced that Milan has arrived in town to commit some outrage against propriety, and rather than being appalled, he’s thrilled. The bourgeois schoolteacher imagines himself as the laconic outsider, even going so far as to try on that fringed jacketmeasuring himself against the stranger’s persona much the way Jean-Paul Belmondo aped a poster of Bogart in Breathless.
At first, Man on the Train appears to be an overly schematic thriller. The garrulous, poetry-quoting Manesquier and the terse, instinctive Milan are a comic odd couple, and they inhabit a rigorously color-coded world: warm yellow in the old man’s home, chilly blue everywhere else. It soon becomes clear, however, that the movie’s intentions are largely humorous. Rochefort’s thwarted but twinkly Manesquier is gently hilarious, Hallyday’s Milan warms up despite himself, and subsidiary characters highlight the central ones. (There is, for example, a minor player who makes Milan look verbose.) Hallyday is certainly not Rochefort’s equal as an actor, but putting the two of them together was a master stroke.
Structurally, Man on the Train recalls many films in which the identities of seemingly antithetical characters begin to blur. (The fountainhead of such movies is Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell’s 1970 Performance.) It can also be seen as a parable of the romancestrained these days, of coursebetween dialogue-heavy French cinema and its action-oriented American cousin. But Leconte (whose previous films include Ridicule and The Widow of Saint Pierre) and scripter Claude Klotz condense such grand notions into wry little vignettes: Milan’s encounter with the boulangerie clerk whose predictable patter exasperates Manesquier, a potential bar fight that doesn’t go the way Milan expects, Manesquier’s confrontation with someone who has apparently broken into his property, Milan’s attempt to tutor a boy about Balzac. Rather than shocking surprises, the film deals primarily in charming serendipities.
The final sequence pumps up the drama before shifting to an elegiac mood, a combination that suggests a Zen version of Performance. This finale is certainly a contrast to the rest of the film, and some have found it jarring. It’s skillfully executed, though, and not entirely inappropriate. Man on the Train is a comedy about missed opportunities that ends with a sort of acceptanceand where else could it go? Any other conclusion would be tragic, which is not at all where this train is bound.
The Man Without a Past is not tragic either, although, as with most Aki Kaurismäki films, it’s a bit of a challenge to identify why it isn’t. Generally, the Finnish writer-director’s characters are subjected to outlandish mortifications yet react with such stolid perseverance that you might wonder if they’re all right in the head. At least that’s not a riddle in the case of the protagonist of this movie, identified in the credits simply as M. Shortly after he steps off a train in Helsinki, M (Markku Peltola) is attacked, brutally beaten, and left for dead. In the hospital, a nurse pulls a sheet over his head, but he unexpectedly revives. He’s bruised but seemingly intactexcept for his memory, which has vanished.
Unsure why he ventured to Helsinki and unaware whether anyone is waiting for him elsewhere, M moves into a harborside shantytown where people live in metal shipping containers. He plants potatoes, makes new friends, becomes the guardian of a cute pooch, and falls in love with Irma, a forlorn soup-kitchen worker (sour-faced Kaurismäki regular Kati Outinen). When he installs a jukebox full of vintage tunes in his container home and converts a Salvation Army quartet into a rockin’ band, M is very close to Kaurismäki heaven. (The director actually owns a Helsinki bar and guided the career of the Leningrad Cowboys, a mock-Russian group that has starred in two of his films.) After a series of coolly outrageous misadventures, M is offered an opportunity to reclaim his previous life, but he is reluctant to do so.
Kaurismäki recently told the Village Voice that he makes a movie whenever he sees that his bank balance has gotten low, andridiculous as this might seem in the shadow of The Matrix ReloadedThe Man Without a Past is a relatively commercial work. (It won awards for best director and best actress at Cannes, and was nominated for a foreign-film Oscar.) The director’s deadpan comedies, which marinate Fassbinder melodrama and Jarmusch absurdism in Finnish booze, had been getting more and more minimal. The last one, Juha (which gets its U.S. theatrical premiere May 30 at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center), is a silent black-and-white soap opera. Now, after a decade in which his new films played only at noncommercial venues in the United States, Kaurismäki has made a movie that might lure viewers who turned out for such art-house hits as Ariel and The Match Factory Girl in the ’80s. He’s back on familiar turf, albeit with a newly sentimental outlook.
In fact, the director has never before been so eager to please. This film features a colorful paletteincluding big blue skiesand a surprisingly sweet scenario that finds the good in almost everyone (except the guys who mug M). Observing the bewildered victims of unemployment, exploitation, and the global flow of capital, the movie is nonetheless as upbeat as the Finnish rockabilly tunes Irma listens to alone in her room. Even at their most auspicious, however, Kaurismäki films are marked by melancholy. American viewers may not get all the referencesat one point, a Salvation Army worker played by a former recording star sings her hit ’50s lament for a Finnish province lost to the Soviet Unionbut the director’s economical style and proletarian consciousness recall the simple fantasies of Depression-era cinema. Set in the brutal present, this tight-lipped charmer takes inspiration from the bad old days. CP