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Drifting Clouds
(Kauas pilvet karkaavat)
Finland - 1996
Directed by Aki Kaurismaki

A review by Damian Cannon.
Copyright © Movie Reviews UK 1997


An extremely minimalist take on the universal misery that is unemployment, Drifting Clouds manages to discover hope even amongst the despair. Somewhere in Helsinki, Ilona (Kati Outinen) works at the Dubrovnik restaurant. By dint of hard work and fortitude, she has managed to raise herself all the way from dishwasher to headwaiter. Imperious, she is given a free hand to command by the owner of the restaurant, Mrs. Sjoholm (Elina Salo). Unfortunately though, both the clientele and the establishment are old, much diminished from the dizzy heights of the post-war era. Now times are hard and customers spend less, especially when an establishment has fallen behind the cutting edge by failing to modernise.

Ilona's husband Lauri (Kari Väänänen) also serves the public, though in a more quotidian capacity. He drives one of the many trams which rattle through the Helsinki streets, carrying folk to and fro. It seems like a steady job (people always need to commute, yes?), right up until the morning when all of the drivers are summoned together. By the random luck of the cards, Lauri finds himself with a month's notice and a huge weight on his shoulders. So much for the colour TV just bought on hire purchase. Then, as if this body-blow wasn't enough, troubles arise at the Dubrovnik. The bank is foreclosing on Mrs. Sjoholm's loan, with the ominous spectre of The Chain looming in the background, like a hired goon. Things have certainly never looked bleaker for Ilona and Lauri.

In common with many of Aki Kaurismäki's other films, Drifting Clouds is non-showy, personal and involving. By picking on the phenomenon of unemployment, a recognisable threat to almost everyone, Kaurismäki touches on one of the least filmed global fears. Very few people know how they might react if, say, their livelihood was taken away after 20 years, never to return. In the event, many go into denial, moving on to either a break-down or another job, with some spiralling into an alcoholic gloom. To Kaurismäki's credit, he records several of these end-points with almost documentary directness, while always hinting at his underlying message. This is that you should never give up, no matter how bad life seems; instead try every avenue and remain positive in spite of any setbacks.

The cement which binds Drifting Clouds together are the dual performances of Outinen and Väänänen. They are old-fashioned people, passed by progress and relegated to the scrap heap through no fault of their own. In fact it's not really anybody's fault, instead their loss is an impersonal function of the economic climate. Throughout the film their characters remain flat and deadpan (almost emotionless), a highly effective and appropriate style. It's almost as if they have already talked about everything of interest so all that's left are the little, functional things. It's a curious but very believable state of affairs. There is, however, evidence of a deep bond, be it love or residual affection, such that they are committed to each other. With this link in place they can endure and survive, in contrast to less fortunate folk. In the background there are many supporting roles which orientate the film, such as Lauri's sister (Outi Mäenpäa) and Melartin (Sakari Kuosmanen). All are deserving of praise.

The directorial technique of Kaurismäki within Drifting Clouds is also of some interest, principally for two of his quirks. Firstly, he almost always avoids capturing an actual event, no matter how significant. Instead he concentrates upon the effects and consequences. This significantly affects the balance of the film, indicating that it's not important what happens, but that it's what you do afterwards that counts. Secondly, there are very few cues to indicate that time is passing. Even with those that do occur, it feels almost as though the clock has been halted, which is somewhat analogous to the bubble which Ilona and Lauri have been living in. Only at the end does the pace speed up, right alongside the thawing of the happy couple.

Drifting Clouds is not exactly a comedy, although there are darkly humorous moments, and not exactly a tragedy, although there are many downbeat aspects to the screenplay. Instead it's more of an examination of life and how to survive misfortune, unscrupulous characters and your own lack of foresight. In this, Kaurismäki succeeds impressively.

Runtime:  96 minutes

Note:  Aki Kaurismaki was nominated for the Golden Palm Award from the Cannes Film Festival for directing Drifting Clouds.  He received the Audience Award from the Sao Paulo International Film Festival for Best Director (1996).

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