As the first instalment to his “Finland Trilogy”, and after a brief stint in Mexico with his supposed career-low sequel Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses, Drifting Clouds marks Kaurismäki’s return to the mother country. It’s a striking, home-truth story, all laced with the deadpan humour that his moniker has become synonymous with.
Made during a turbulent time in Finnish history when the unemployment situation was excessively gloomy, Drifting Clouds personalises the economic turmoil through Ilona (Kati Outinen) and her husband Lauri (Kari Väänänen), a married couple caught between the wheels of capitalism as it grinds inexorably onward. He loses his humble job as a tram driver and, not far behind, she is dropped as the head waiter in a local restaurant for being too old. The pair fall into a series of desperate, dour circumstances that include mental depression, epidemic alcoholism among their fellow sufferers, and bouts of job-seeking degradation.
Kaurismäki quickly suggests his thwarted characters’ undermining grief, and the tragedies losing their respective jobs will bring. Early on in the proceedings, Lauri surprises Ilona when she returns to her garishly coloured home to find a TV sitting pride and place in what looks like an uninhabited living room. Desperately explaining it’s wonderful features: a remote control, big screen and colour projection, Ilona is unfazed, as she notes that they still haven’t finished paying for the bookshelves or the couch yet. Biting his stiff upper lip, he says that in no less than four years time the payments will be in the clear and they can start making the furniture look lived in, piece by piece, book by book. Such grave statements would pass as deadpan humour, if they weren’t spoken with such resigned weariness and doubt.
At first glance, there is a thread of political commentary in Drifting Clouds, looking at how capitalism stultifies society. All that is true, but Kaurismäki’s finest achievement is in making the film hit us on an authentically candid level; showing us how humiliating it must be for a woman of thirty-eight, who has worked long and hard to win a respectable, yet still modest position, to be forced into cleaning dishes in a dive-cafe. How horrible it must be for a middle aged man to confront his wife’s former employer over unpaid wages, only to be beaten to an inch of his life when the former boss, a good few years his senior refuses to release the money . Through exploration of these two characters, with little regard to anything surrounding them, or the financial crisis as an omnipresent social factor, the film is equally engrossing and difficult. Even with a hint of optimism in the film’s close, sitting through Drifting Clouds is a sombre experience that only a sadist would dare experience twice.