Optimism reigns supreme in Aki Kaurismaki’s “Drifting Clouds”

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With a filmography consisting of more than 15 films behind him, acclaimed Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki has established himself as an auteur in his native Finland over the course of more than 30 years. His films are characterized by a highly idiosyncratic style that brings me to mind the style of the likes of Robert Bresson, Emir Kusturica and Roy Andersson. If you’ve seen the interview of Kaurismaki, you’ll note that he is not that different from some of the characters in his films. They rarely display emotion and if they do, it’s minimal. The dialogues are at times self-deprecating, laconic and delivered with a deadpan expression. The production design, the composition and the way he lights his films are reminiscent of the films from the 1950s and 60s. Drifting Clouds is among my favorite Kaurismaki films.

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This particular exchange is one of my favorite scenes from the film:

Lauri: “I want my money back. This movie was unbearable rubbish”.
Cashier: “You didn’t even pay.”
Lauri: “So what? Cheating people. Goodbye!”
Cashier: “What about the dog?”
Lauri: “Give it to me.”
Ilona: “I thought it was good.”
Lauri: “Supposed to be a comedy. I didn’t even laugh once.”
Ilona: “It’s still not the cashier’s fault.”
Lauri: “At least I took out my bitterness.”
Ilona: “She is your sister though.”
Lauir: “All the worse for her.”

The film stars some of the Kaurismaki regulars, Kati Outinen playing Ilona and Kari Väänänen as her husband Lauri. She works as the head waitress at an old restaurant and he works as a tram driver. They manage to get by day after day. Their household items including the tv are brought on an installment basis. They know that they can’t afford but still remain optimistic. One day, Lauri gets to work and learns that some “changes” are being made and not wanting to fire them in a conventional manner, the management decides to pick the “lucky ones” through a “draw”. Lauri picks up the wrong card and brings home the news that he is now out of a job. Not long after that, Ilona learns that her restaurant is going to be taken over by a new management and she too loses her job. Too proud to go on welfare, Lauri determines to find a new job. He does come across one but loses the medical exam. Even though this is a sad moment for both of them, Kaurismaki manages to infuse his trademark humor into it. Returning with this bad news, Lauri tells Ilona with a deadpan expression: “They have taken my professional driver’s license. From now on, I can only drive a toy car”, and collapses on the floor. It’s pure genius.

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Ilona soon finds a job at another restaurant which in reality is a “snack bar where they serve beer”, according to her. The owner is a miser who only drops in to collect the day’s collection and isn’t bothered about how the place operates. She even ignores her tax book. Ilona is the only staff: she is the cook, the waitress, the dishwasher and the cashier all rolled into one. When someone orders something, she calls out into the kitchen, then without anyone noticing, slips into the kitchen and an apron and prepares the snack herself. This places gets shut down as well and when Lauri approaches the owner and demands that he pays his wife’s total salary, the owner reacts nonchalantly. This provokes Lauri and he gets into a fistfight. Needless to say, he loses once again and is beaten up badly. This scene too, provides an opportunity for humor as Lauri explains the reason for his disappearance for a week after the beating. “I didn’t want to get frightened seeing my mincemeat of a face”, says he and she retorts by saying: “As if I wasn’t frightened now.”

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Ilona encounters several of her former colleagues and even the boss of her previous restaurant and together they work out a plan to set up their own restaurant. This is the kind of model couple that we rarely get to see in real life. They stick with each other till the end and forgive each other for whatever shortcomings they have. They don’t blame each other for whatever despairing circumstances they are put through and and take each day at a time. Now, this doesn’t mean Kaurismaki is selling us a fairy tale. The film is part of Kaurismaki’s “Loser trilogy” that comprises of Drifting Clouds, The Man Without a Past (another favorite of mine) and Lights in the Dusk, each one telling a tale of a group of working-class individuals experiencing unemployment, loss of self-esteem and humiliation. But with the exception of one or two films, Kaurismaki doesn’t intend to depress his viewers in spite of the bleak circumstances his characters find themselves in. Kaurismaki once said: “I think the more pessimistic I feel about life, the more optimistic the films should be.”

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