Drifting Clouds
Kauas pilvet karkaavat
review by Elias Savada, 23 May 2003

Nokia, Finlandia Vodka, and Aki Kaurismäki. Three exceptional Finnish exports of particular interest. Americans are most familiar with the first two. The third is an acquired taste -- a celebrated European filmmaker who most unaccustomed American audiences would undoubtedly, and unfortunately, find too brilliantly austere, darkly humorous, and almost tragically optimistic, for their action-packed desires and low-brow mentality. Drifting Clouds (Kauas pilvet karkaavat) was made several films before Man Without a Past, Kaurismäki's most recent exploration of life's dispossessed denizens which was nominated for an Oscar as best foreign-language feature (losing to Nowhere in Africa), and is just now breaking into broader release in the United States. I first caught Kaurismäki's 1996 effort at that year's San Sebastian International Film Festival, where it was shown out of competition in the Zabaltegi (Open Zone) section. This was my initial dose of a director who has become one of Scandinavia's cinematic gods, with a fan base that continues to grown. Drifting Clouds, which unfortunately never found a U.S. distributor, has been retrieved from festival and museum obscurity (it premiered in this country as part of a salute to Finnish cinema at New York City's MoMA in April 1998) for a one-week Memorial Day week run at The American Film Institute's new Silver Spring (Maryland) triplex. The print may look a little battered and lacking an occasion English subtitle (causing some minor, brief confusion for the non-Finnish literate amongst us), but it's still a quirky, stylized production gracing, ever so briefly, the Washington, DC, area.

The film, made at a time when the unemployment situation in Finland was excessively gloomy (the film suggests a 40% unemployment rate among restaurant workers), concerns the economic crunch felt by Ilona Koponen (Kati Outinen) and her husband Lauri (Kari Väänänen), a couple who suffer double mid-life disasters when both loose their jobs and fall into a series of desperate, dour circumstances that include mental depression, widespread alcoholism among their fellow sufferers (an extended-family motif that buoyantly resurfaces in Man Without a Past, which stars Outinen and Markku Peltola, featured here as a knife-wielding cook), and weighty bouts of job-seeking degradation.

Kaurismäki tells his story through his now standard trademarks: a cast whose facial expressions border on stoneface -- seemingly devoid of any emotion (and dialogue) -- as deadpan as a convention of Buster Keaton impersonators, with his Spartan, bargain basement sets smothered in garishly painted and florescently lit colors, especially blue. This flavoring adds an oddly neo-realistic ironic tone to a film about such a difficult subject. Half comedy, half drama, half empty, half full. According to one interview with the director-writer, "When I started writing the script for this film, I placed the task of Frank Capra's emotional rescue story It's a Wonderful Life in one extreme corner and Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thief in the other, and the Finnish reality in between." Yeah, I can see that, a wry, social commentary on the family of everyman.

Another technique favored by Kaurismäki, and one that can be quite annoying, is his extensive use of reaction shots, at the expense of showing the actual action. We don't see the drunken cook stabbing the restaurant porter (where Ilona is headwaiter), or her slapping the cook to bring him back to his senses. Instead we hear the scuffle or the smack, and see the other actors' more important -- in Kaurismäki's eyes -- feedback.

There's also some weird stuff about eight or numbers ending with that digit. The Dubrovnik, the old-fashioned, near-comatose restaurant owned by Mrs. Sjöholm (Elina Salo) and overseen by thirty-eight-year-old Ilona, has that number of employees before new owners end its thirty-eight-year subdued existence. It's also the total number of employees, before a pick-a-card consolidation halves it, of the town's tram service that forces Lauri from his seemingly stable occupation as a streetcar driver. When they both are forced onto the unemployment rolls, their frugally (by current American standards) overextended life brings repossession of those few things that adorn their apartment -- the new Sony Trinitron, the book shelves, and the purple couch.

Eventually the sadness appears to lift, as Lauri is hired as a charter bus driver for trips to St. Petersburg, but the triumphant cigar smoke turns stale when he flunks his physical. Then Ilona withdraws her entire savings to secure a dead end job working in a dreary bar/diner as the sole, but not soulless, hostess/cook. "It's a lousy hole," she reflects. Things turn darker when Forsström (Matti Onnismaa), her boss, absconds with the tax payments he should have been disbursing to the authorities.

Life drags along during most of the film's dire ninety-six minutes, buttressed by desperate dreams that bear down further on a family's financial straits. Thankfully, hope springs eternal as the dessert blooms and Drifting Clouds blossoms.

Written and
Directed by:

Aki Kaurismäki

Kati Outinen
Kari VäänänenElina Salo
Sakari Kuosmanen
Markku Peltola
Matti Onnismaa

R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult







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