In A Patriotic Man, an illegal blood transfusion donor (Martti Suosalo) becomes so drunk in lust with the Winter Olympic athlete he’s performance-enhancing (Pamela Tola) that his old loosely-held values get trampled underfoot. The last notable example of a film intertwining the absurdly posing statehood of the Games and the baseness of its players is last year’s Foxcatcher, and the idea of a film actively mining for farce rather than masking it in austere navel-gazing would make Man a more tempting proposition. Even divorced from that comparison, Man has neither the focus nor the energy that might make its circus of backdoor power grabs interesting.
It’s hard to blame writer-director Arto Halonen for attacking such a novel premise, but in his excitement to cut to the chase he turns the opening act around too quickly to allow for meaningful purchase on his main character. Toivo (Suosalo) is an unemployed schlub who spends time watching national tournaments unfold through a cathode-ray TV, which is a detail of a 1980s period setting kept conspicuously vague, probably to minimise the copyrighted Games branding. A routine doctor’s visit lands him under the gaze of the Finnish ski team’s medical insider (Kari Ketonen), who spies rare qualities in his vital fluid and coerces him into becoming a human reserve for his home country, which is badly lagging on the world stage. Besides sections that see Toivo flirting and falling in love with star athlete Aino (Tola) at the expense of his bitter midwife partner (Prijo Lonka), the rest of the film is a revolving door of weird and not wonderful characters telling Toivo what is happening in their scheme to place Finland with the rest of the international pack. The constant through all the mild chaos is Toivo’s sluggish indifference, vaguely charming at first with Suosalo’s mannerisms and quickly maddening when the plot takes on its own heedlessness.
The film is paced slovenly, even at 90 minutes, and that’s no fault of the performances since Suosalo, Tola and Lonka mine as much credibility out of their beleaguered lead characters as they can. It is more down to Halonen’s flat aesthetic choices; many scenes are bathed in white mist from outdoors, possibly to make the discussions feel like skulkings backstage of the main event, but this becomes a tedious blanket approach applied even to scenes that don’t really call for a feeling of surreptitiousness. The few times he breaks this is to set the camera on a dolly and roll past a kind of pale in Toivo’s world (e.g. a slow approach to criminal benefactors in a nightclub, a fly-through of an Olympic ring at the Opening Ceremony) though the insipid, overly complicated story gives us no meaningful contrast between the two worlds Toivo soon has feet, and bags of vital fluids, in. Making matters worse is an editing scheme that wanders through satirical masculinity-complex territory that Force Majeure scorched last year, with flat conversations, awkward cut-offs and a sex scene neon-lit in its abjection. The comparison is unshakeable with the wintry setting, and while Halonen’s effort pre-dates Majeure by a year, he and DOP Hannu-Pekka Vitikainen’s choices fall flat regardless.
The weak attempts at humour, capped with a surprisingly endearing deployment of Boney M’s “Rivers of Babylon”, wouldn’t flail so much if not for the ongoing determination to land a satirical blow. “It’s an ugly game,” says one of Toivo’s unpleasant teammates. “We count the bodies later.” A Patriotic Man’s biggest failing is that it hasn’t got the steely, murderous energy that a line like that intones, even when an uber-patriot (Janne Reinikainen) asks Toivo if he truly is the film’s namesake. Dialogue gestures towards the savagery of what they are doing in Finland’s name, while the score’s melodramatic piano stings suggest a pale imitation of camp that might trivialise it, and the film runs out the clock veering listlessly between such modes. Among the staid exchanges that Halonen keenly reminds us in a pre-title card as being both fictional and inspired by real events. He seems to invite that age-old discussion about the balance between historical credibility and artistic license, but the end result isn’t nearly imperative enough to earn that.