(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
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
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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