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Drifting Clouds – "The Poetry of the Quotidian" of Aki Kaurismäki by Vandana Kumar

To think of Finnish cinema, is to think of Aki Kaurismäki. Apparently, this perception isn’t entirely off the mark as the writer-director has contributed close to one fifth of the entire country’s cinema. Known for his deadpan humor and mind-numbing minimalism, I was bowled over by the everyday that he showed in the ‘The Match Factory Girl’ (1990). Drifting Clouds (1996) or ‘Kauas pilvet karkaavat’ is another gem from his œuvre. It has the trademark elements of his cinema and some interesting departures too.

The Finnish auteur has an eye for the banal and makes cinema out of it. Perhaps that he started his career washing dishes and doing other menial jobs, gave him a greater insight into such affairs. ‘Drifting Clouds’ dwells on subjects that Kaurismäki is in his element with and understands closely – jobs and joblessness, unemployment and attempts at setting up and running small businesses. He has the most wry depiction of the Finnish outsiders and those reduced to the margins. The protagonists are a married couple Ilona and Lauri, played by Kati Outinen and Kari Väänänen. For those familiar with his style, both these actors were his regulars and both suited his cinema beautifully – regular ordinary every day faces who no one would look at twice. These actors carry moroseness beautifully. The couple here in Drifting Clouds are initially seen as a lower middle class one till they lose their respective jobs and times are tough in Helsinki.

In fact, for such grim reality the film opens to a gorgeous song ‘Lonesome Traveller’ by Shelley Fisher. It had a nomination for original music at the Cannes Film festival. The film starts with the song being played on the piano in a dark restaurant bar. It is such a dreamy feel that anyone unfamiliar with the style of Kaurismäki might think they are in for some romantic fairy tale. It is dingy and its late evening. The customers at the restaurant belong to a dreary world of timetables. Some hands shown are calloused – laborers, construction workers and the like. A little respite before they clock in for work again. A dog lies on the floor near a customer somewhere. No one is smiling during this break though they smoke and talk incessantly. Kati Outinen playing Ilona is introduced in this scene not with some typical ‘May I help you?’ or some peppy dialogue. Instead, when she is seating people there is constant consternation and something very pensive that her visage holds.

From Satyajit Ray to Ritwik Ghatak, from Vittorio De Sica to Charles Chaplin – all these film makers have taken up poverty – crushing and debilitating to the point where one can’t breathe, and existence is threatened. They have even touched on those marginalized and displaced in society. Kaurismäki’s is a complete reversal of such depictions, and it is stoic in the way his characters almost seem to spout philosophy through the everyday. Forget about lingering on images of no food and no shelter that disturb the audience visibly. He tells us that when things are so bad there is just nothing that can make it worse so therefore no related dialogues, no tears, and no sentimentality.

So much happens in Drifting Clouds to test human endurance. Ilona is told that the restaurant where she works is bankrupt and she can kiss goodbye to her job as a manager. Her husband is laid off his job in a transport system. There is a TV that has to be done away with. The couple have momentary lapses from the permanently fitted air of sadness around them – when they forget their fate and let go. So, they pour that one more drink and lift that one more cigarette to smoke away the blues. That is not all – for in Kaurismäki territory it seems that when life leaves you with a quarter, you must drop it in that jukebox. It is defiance of destiny in that sense and that little margin for escape that Aki gives the characters here.

The relationship between the husband and wife is similarly portrayed and they take all the misfortune that befalls in their stoic stride. The romance is there in the tenderness that comes from understanding situations without verbalizing them. Take the very first night of the story. The first night is established as one where both Lauri and Ilona are reasonably okay with the way their jobs are going and they are doing moderately well for themselves. She's the ultra-composed, ultra-efficient head waiter at Dubrovnik restaurant. He drives a trolley in the streets of Helsinki. When Ilona leaves work every night, it is around the time of the last run of Lauri's tram. Ilona hops into Lauri’s car that night too, and there is a fleeting kiss with the driver – her husband.

At home Lauri has a surprise planned for his wife and he covers her eyes to show her their new possession – a brand new TV! They both share something in that moment – an unspoken thought. Perhaps of how credit pay off will be managed. It’s a luxury they can ill afford and yet there it is. They sit very close to each other in a small sofa that is literally not enough for a third. A space shared in a hemmed in apartment that neither any love making scene nor ‘I love you declarations’ could have brought out. There is another element that bonds them – a framed photo – never spoken of, but pointedly of a child.

At one level the film is about the couple’s journey and how they make it through difficult times. They do it with dignity and philosophical acceptance of what is in their stock. More than any infidelity, it is harsh economic conditions and circumstances surrounding them that can test the foundation of any marriage. When Ilona is depressed at the prospect of working in a shady beer joint, she finds solace with a tender kiss on her forehead from Lauri. When Lauri learns that he has failed a medical examination requirement for a new job and lost his license, Ilona too, comforts him similarly.

The outdoors is not emphasized as much as the indoors. The color patters of shades of blue make some scenes seem unreal and deliberately staged. The scenes indoors – whether at the restaurant, employment agency or the chef’s kitchen – they seem to be all closing in on us. The styling shows us their suffocation. They are the odd marginalized couple, and the world doesn’t care.

Kaurismäki’s characters act in a way that is driven around a couple of expressions. His realism is not of the Ken Loach kind. Kaurismäki’s realism is stylized, and you have to draw from the abstract. In an interview at the film’s premier, Kaurismäki said that the enemy is invisible in modern society and so he keeps it invisible in his cinema. He simply asks the audience to find the dangers lurking.

If the darkness of the protagonists in Kaurismäki’s film doesn’t get you all morose, it is not just the humor but also the music that is significantly responsible for it. The music seems to keep the drifters in the film afloat. If one can’t go beyond the depths of bad luck, why not listen to some good music is the point being made. The Finnish consistently figure in World Happiness reports among the top 10 nations. Whatever life throws at you, listen to music. The characters also seem to show the middle finger to those thinking they will break down and die because of their circumstances. Aki was influenced by post war America and the Jukebox element seems a direct result of that. The Juke box figures prominently in some of his other films too, noticeably – ‘The man without a past’ (2002). Going by audience reviews that I came across on the internet, a lot of audience responses in his native land have been of overwhelming nostalgia for life in the post war times. I have now happily made an ‘Aki Kaurismäki’ playlist of my own including some great Finnish post war Tango music. The opening song of Drifting Clouds by Shelly Fisher remains a favorite.

While there is a lot of talk of Helsinki of the times and the unemployment, this film doesn’t seem to be talking to Helsinki in particular. Of course, the city could be identified by a resident but there is no Helsinki element in particular that an outsider learns about. It is about moods and absurd situations that the characters find themselves in and we see more frontal close ups with the deadpan look. The scenes could be placed anywhere. The film has a Universal feel of a metro and those on the margins. It is primarily this that concerns Aki – the signs of a neo liberal state that he sees through those on the margins. He sees a state that was supposed to deliver as a welfare one – and failed!

Drifting Clouds is said to mark a shift in Kaurismäki’s cinema. This was the stage when he got more interested in politics and global changes around him. While keeping the trademark dark humor, his films are said to have shown people reaching out to each other and a certain bonding with friends and community in bleak times. That is certainly the case in both ‘Drifting Clouds’ and ‘The Man Without a Past’ (2002). These two films coupled with ‘Lights in the Dusk’ (2006) are considered a trilogy in his œuvre. An economic critique is very visible in these films. In Drifting Clouds, the banking crisis and economic recession of a few years ago (1991-1993) is a major focus. When Ilona and Lauri lose their jobs there is a struggle to restart their lives and venture into anything as they are refused credit by unethical bankers. They do finally get bailed out of a messy situation by the kindness of a former employee of one of the protagonists. These films do show the financial mess that the characters find themselves in, but equally show some redemption in the end for the characters. Much like ‘Drifting clouds’, ‘The Man Without a Past’ too has an optimistic and upbeat ending. A word of caution here – upbeat is still within the Kaurismäki territory.

Aki Kaurismäki’s characters talk very little. It is considered a quintessentially Finnish trait. According to Bertolt Brecht the two most silent nations in their respective languages are the Finland and the Sweden. While that may be true, it was equally, a deliberate reversal of Hollywood method acting and dialogue reliant narrative. Aki the auteur makes sure the talking is elsewhere through the Mise en scène. It is his color schemes (a lovely aqua blue in Drifting Clouds), the music and the interesting objects that inundate his scenes repeatedly – Jukebox, junkyards, garbage dumps and dogs. There is a Kaurismäkian dog in the restaurant where Ilona works and one in the couples’s own apartment.

Scenes that are significant are those that show things and leave them as they are. Open ended and without explanations. Like the photo frame of the young boy in the protagonists’ home. There could be a sorrow unspoken of. There is no telling till the end but in all probability a lost child as far as the film goes. I read somewhere that Drifting Clouds was made a year after the sudden death of Kaurismäki’s friend and a regular collaborator Matti Pellonpaa. Perhaps it is the director’s homage to the actor through the child’s photo.

Within the minimal, both the economy of words and the generosity of silence, there are some memorable dialogues. All bring out his bleak vision of the unpredictability of life and its unexpected twists and turns but with great offbeat humor.

Ilona: I started as dishwasher, then kitchen maid, then waiter until I got to be a head waiter. I could still be a waiter, anything.

Resturant Manager: to be honest, you're too old for a waiter.

Ilona: I'm thirty-eight.

Manager: That's it. You can drop dead anytime

Drifting Clouds is devoid of sex scenes too, like most of the director’s work. The romance is about being together in times of despair and all the talk of installments, credit scores and laying a head on a partner’s shoulder. Similarly, the sex too, is not shown. The scene just cuts to another before you can even think of the possibility of anything sexual transpiring. In fact, Kaurismäki says that of overt violence too. In his words – “Sex and violence you will never see. For most of my fellow filmmakers, sex, and violence [is] in the foreground. I care about the other forms of human behavior”.

‘Drifting Clouds’ is in the end about getting a second chance amidst the gloom. After a list of unending disappointments in keeping jobs, layoffs and getting jobs again, the couple decides to open a new restaurant and collects all the old staff from the old Dubrovnik restaurant. Kaurismäki said that mostly his films don’t end with pessimism as once his characters have lost all hope, there is nothing to be pessimistic about. Could any view be darker? And yet this film departs significantly in the end with hope in the hearts of the couple. The little feeling of joy, the glimmer of hope – nothing is overtly shown – it all remains in the classical realm of unbelievable minimalism – at best the idea that a drifting cloud will pass. So, the film opens to a restaurant and closes with events revolving around a restaurant.

The French critics and audiences have showered a lot of love on Aki’s films saying that most of them remind them of their favorites Robert Bresson and Jean Pierre Melville. A lot of research papers mention that the dialogues from the cinema of Aki Kaurismäki reminds the French of those of Jean – Luc Goddard. They have made comparisons with the French New Wave and even acknowledged the director as an auteur. Famously or perhaps infamously, for the ‘Match Factory Girl’, the director of the film said “…. I decided to make a film that will make Robert Bresson seem like a director of epic action pictures”. Before you raise an eyebrow, Kaurismäki also says about his own film ‘Le Havre’ (2011), that it’s probably his only film he hasn’t ended up hating. How can one possibly not love that! And his acknowledgment of Bresson is equally silent as his cinema. There is a significant scene in Drifting Clouds when Lauri is laid off from work through a random probability method of lottery. Lauri doesn’t confide in his wife about the bad news until the last day at work. He is in a sour mood and exits from a theatre before the movie is finished with Ilona following behind. In the theatre lobby, we see posters of Bresson’s L’Argent (1983), Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934), and Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth (1991).

The 97-minute film depicts abysmal poverty but with certain detachment. It doesn’t feel exploitative or maudlin and is certainly not a tearjerker. The director lays it for you there – letting you explore the quotidian of the drifters and those looking for crumbs that society throws its ways. Sometimes they get on the top of the situation, sometimes they lose the game. But that’s how it is folks, Aki Kaurismäki seems to be saying.

He makes the optimum use of hopelessness in the souls of the protagonists and in the end makes the characters rejoice in his trademark way, so that they do not surrender. Kaurismäki himself describes this sort of cinema as midway between ‘The Bicycle Thief’ and ‘It's a Wonderful Life’– Between hope and despair, hanging in there.

Vandana Kumar is a Delhi based internationally published poet, a teacher of French and cinema lover.

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