Dir: Aki Kaurismaki. Finland. 2002. 97mins. Screening in Competition

A low-life comedy-drama guaranteed to leave the viewer feeling high, the latest from Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki has all of his distinctive features: poker-faced humour, stripped-down and highly composed visuals, and a humanist romantic sensibility. All combine to make The Man Without A Past possibly the most purely pleasurable experience to run in Competition so far this year at Cannes. Kaurismaki's devoted following will go crazy for it, while the B-movie genre touches should win new converts, making this the lugubrious Finn's most commercial offering to date.

The titular hero, listed in the credits only as M, is a solemn leather-jacketed man (Markku Peltola) who arrives in Helsinki by train, sits down on a bench at night, and promptly gets beaten within an inch of his life by three thugs: a startling and exceedingly rare burst of violence in a Kaurismaki film. He is taken to hospital and bandaged up, mummy-style, but soon flatlines and is declared dead. Almost immediately, however, he jolts back to life, and in a visual gag that dazzlingly wrong-foots the audience, crunches his nose back into position before heading out into the world.

Unable to remember his identity, he is taken in and nursed by a friendly couple (Juhani Niemela, Kaija Pakarinen) who live in a community of down-and-outs making makeshift homes for themselves in old freight containers. M does a deal with the freightyard's corrupt and grandiloquent, but ultimately ineffectual, security guard Anttila aka 'whip of God' (Sakari Kuosmanen) for a container of his own, complete with a working jukebox stocked with R&B and Blind Lemon Jefferson blues. He doggedly builds himself a new life, with inspiration from Salvation Army officer Irma (Kati Outinen), for who he sparks a chaste mutual passion. His new life takes a new turn when he decides to turn the Sally Army band into a passable rock-and-tango combo. The road to a happy conclusion only briefly detours when he is involved in what must be the most no-nonsense bank heist in cinema history, a drily farcical sequence executed with Kaurismaki's typical economy.

The film is perhaps Kaurismaki's most concerted attempt to mix cinematic borrowings into something fresh. The film, with its amnesia story, is essentially a 1950s American B-movie melodrama with allusions to Depression-era cinema, visual echoes of Vigo's L'Atalante in the dockside scenes, and a big splash of Jean Renoir's community spirit. Jokey and feather-light as the film might seem at first glance, it turns out to be surprisingly deep and serious. Kaurismaki's social concern is absolutely for real, with his empathy for the socially excluded (many of the extras appear to be genuine homeless people) and his critique of a callous economic system - the bank robber, we discover, does what he does for morally unimpeachable reasons. In addition, the film enquires into the problems, both social and existential, of memory loss, with M forging a new identity for himself as assiduously as he plants the small potato crop that he now depends on.

The film offers plenty of relishable gags, both visual and verbal - "Keep my metabolism out of this," says a character accused of being overweight. The director's absolutely individual, finely balanced tone, pitched somewhere between Bresson and Buster Keaton, is beautifully carried off by the cast. Kaurismaki's regular female lead Kati Outinen gives a wonderfully pinched evocation of repressed passion, and the flawlessly impassive but simpatico Markku Peltola, with his bulky movements and overcast leathery features, is surely Finland's own Robert Mitchum. Alongside a mixture of Kaurismaki regulars and new faces, there are cameos by Finnish critic and festival director Peter Von Bagh and, as the manageress of the Salvation Army flea market, veteran Finnish singer Annikki Tahti, who winds the film up with a rendition of her mournful 1950s hit Do You Remember Monrepos.

Shot by Kaurismaki's regular cinematographer Timo Salminen, the film has most in common visually (as well as in emotional mood) with his 1996 film Drifting Clouds, with the same warm tones used to give an ostensibly realistic world an almost hermetic strangeness. The film is also stylistically very much of a piece with Dogs Have No Hell, Kaurismaki's contribution to the portmanteau film Ten Minutes Older, shown in Un Certain Regard and featuring the same lead couple.

Whatever the film's considerable claims to a shot at the Palme d'Or, voters for the Festival's unofficial Palm Dog award for best canine performance will surely give serious consideration to Tahti the Dog who plays Hannibal, Anttila's supposedly ferocious but self-evidently soft-hearted mutt. Descended from other four-footed Finnish thesps who have worked with Kaurismaki, Tahti is a charismatic natural, although perhaps not as Bressonian as the terrier in Drifting Clouds.

Prod co:Sputnik Oy
Fr dist: Pyramide
Sales co: Bavaria Film International
Scr: Aki Kaurismaki
Cinematography: Timo Salminen
Ed: Timo Linnasalo
Prod des: Markku Patila, Jukka Salmi
Main cast: Markku Peltola, Kato Outinen, Juhani Niemela, Kaija Pakarinen, Sakari Kuosmanen, Annikki Tahti, Tahti the dog