Saddled with a lousy title giving the false impression of a cutesy animal flick, “Dog Nail Clipper” turns out to be a lyrical rumination on the resilience of the human spirit and reps helmer Markku Polonen’s most mature work to date. Enhanced by master cinematographer Kari Sohlberg’s sweeping widescreen lensing and Peter Franzen’s standout performance as a wounded veteran in the forests of northern Finland, pic scored big at the Finnish equivalent of the Oscars, raking in five Jussis in major categories. Local biz was strong in early ’04, but awkward moniker may hamper international sales.
Some knowledge of Finland’s dark days during World War II helps to explain the opening sequences, when soldier Mertsi (Peter Franzen) is carried off the battlefield with a nasty head wound. The resulting brain damage leaves him with a persistent facial tic and little memory of his past. However, his gentle demeanor wins over assorted protectors, including itinerant carpenter Ville (Ahti Kuoppala), who teaches Mertsi woodworking skills and speaks warmly of the faithful dog waiting at his home in the north.
Mertsi latches onto Ville’s description of the fiercely loyal pooch, affected by the older man’s concern for the dog’s precariously long nails. Without a word, Mertsi hops a train heading toward the carpenter’s village, though his lack of basic survival skills following his injury makes him like an eager-to-please child facing an adult world.
Fortuitously, he meets the kindly Eetvi (Taisto Reimaluoto), a former colleague from better days who brings him to the logging camp where he works.
With Eetvi looking out for him, Mertsi tries a variety of jobs, amenable to labor but crushingly unfit for most of the physical tasks required.
Balancing pathos with a touching optimism, Polonen weaves a simple story around his signature northern Finnish locales, especially the kind of logging community he’s previously shot in “A Summer by the River.”
The biggest problem is the graceless title, which perhaps works best at home, where Veikko Huovisen’s novel is considered a classic.
The idea behind the dog pedicure springs from Mertsi’s need to be useful, as well as his gentle-hearted desire to help Ville ease the discomfort of his trusty companion. Rather than an obsession with veterinary chiropody, the act of clipping the dog’s nails becomes an affirmation of loyalty, from one well-treated creature to another.
Pic is the fourth time Franzen and Polonen have worked together, and confirms the actor’s status as one of the most talented and versatile thesps in Finland. Best known abroad for his role as the ultra-handsome b.f. in “Lovers & Leavers,” Franzen’s performance here, full of dignity and pathos yet never descending into the sentimental or grotesque, proves he’s not just another pretty face, but rather a multi-faceted talent to watch.
Lensing is superb throughout, with Polonen’s usual lenser Kari Sohlberg utilizing expressive shots of the forested countryside in the manner of a Hollywood epic, but on a decidedly intimate scale. Early sequences are matched in their silvery grays and greens with Mertsi’s nightmare flashbacks, contrasted with the richer colors and snowy whites of the northern landscape. Vesa Makinen’s elegiac music beautifully matches the gliding camerawork.