I first came across Aki Kaurismäki’s work when I saw “The Man without a Past” back in 2002 and I really liked it and I had high hopes for “Drifting Clouds” (1996), which is one of his earlier works. After watching it recently, I was a little dissapointed I must admit. It emanates a certain crudeness that makes it difficult to immerse yourself in the story even more so since the English subtitles are awkward at times and distract from the characters original dialogue.
Aki’s movies have often been described as being minimalistic. The mis en scene in “Drifting Clouds” mirrors a time of recession in Finnland, with highly saturated colors reminiscent of ’50s Technicolor and lots of shades of blue (as is the case in “Man without a Past”). The colors and the absence of warmth make the sets appear void of happiness and in a way resemble the desolate inner state of the characters. We do not get to see much if any emotions from the characters themselves and the acting could be considered almost clinically sterile.
Centering on frustration and self-disappointment of the characters, the self-deprecating humor is not always easy to relate to, esp. for a non Finnish audience. Even the couple’s dog is impassive and indifferent whatever the occasion, like in the scene when the dog is handed back by the cashier at the cinema. That scene tells you a lot about the whole movie in itself and its ambiguity is no coincidence. Lauri wants his money back because he thinks the movie is bad and no comedy at all and he did not even laugh once, whereupon the cashier – his sister – reminds him that he hasn’t even paid for the tickets upon which Lauri demands the dog back instead. After Ilona and Lauri left the cinema, Ilona says that he shouldn’t be so mean to the cashier, since she is his sister after all, but Lauri just brushes her off with his reply: “So much the worse for her”.
The working class couple, Ilona (Kati Outinen) and Lauri (Kari Väänänen) both have jobs at the beginning of the movie; Ilona is a head waitress at a local restaurant “Dubrovnik” and Lauri works for a streetcar company. Lauri gets laid off the next day and Ilona is to follow soon after with the closing down of the “Dubrovnik”. Afore mentioned frustration and self-dissapointment ensues combined with the excessive consumption of alcohol. It is all the more tragic that the actor Matti Pellonpaa, a Kaurismäki regular, who was supposed to play the main part, literally drank himself to death before the film went into production. The film is dedicated to his memory.
This does not sound like a comedy, does it? Still, whatever the odds and no matter how bad things are, Aki’s characters never give up and there is a happy ending for a couple that always tries to make the best of a depression situation and I guess that describes this kind of Finnish hangdog humor best.