Film & DVD Review: Drifting Clouds

Reviewed by Aidan Rankin

Drifting Clouds DVD Cover

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Drifting Clouds is a beautiful and simple story of ordinary heroism that should be subtitled “how we survived market forces and even laughed”. A married, middle-aged couple, Ilona and Lauri (Kati Outinen and Kari Vaananen) find their lives horribly transformed by sudden unemployment. In the case of Ilona, the restaurant where she works is taken over by a “Chain” which brings its own staff. Only the day before, her husband Lauri had lost his job as a tram-driver because of “reforms” by the company. Their marriage itself is a union of the working class and small business cultures, those two repositories of decent, democratic values threatened with extinction in the name of “progress”.

The setting is Helsinki, but the couple’s predicament is global in its implications. Ilona finds that her life’s work, her ascent from dish-washer to head waiter, counts for nothing in a world of fast food, impersonal service and mind-numbing pop music. Lauri meanwhile fails a medical when he applies for a job as a long-haul bus driver. We watch them chafe against market-imposed idleness and the benefit culture that threatens their self-respect. They drift into cycles of dead-end jobs, dodgy employment agencies, moonlighting, drinking and near-despair. Ironically, their vicissitudes are caused by their attempts to help themselves rather than any failure to seek work. Ilona and Lauri grapple with their loss of status and a sense of belonging as they discover that their skills are not valued. Ilona, for example, finds that she cannot get a loan from her bank to start another small business. Applying for a waitressing job, she is dismissed as “too old” (she is thirty-eight) and that the old-fashioned neighbourhood restaurant where she worked was “no reference”. Salvation comes to her eventually, and in an unexpected twist, but throughout the film there is a knife-edge atmosphere and we fear the worst. We watch in horror as two people whose lives were routine, even dull, are abandoned to the fates and seem about to lose all that they have worked for and achieved.

Drifting Clouds is distinguished by the gentle, understated beauty of its northerly setting. The apartment where Ilona and Lauri live is decorated entirely in primary colours, the streets (clean and car-free by British standards) are lined with golden autumn leaves, the old-fashioned Finnish songs take us back in our imagination to a kinder world where social justice and distinctive cultures are considered important. When the “modern” world intrudes, it does so in crass, disruptive terms. The thugs who attack Lauri listen to mindless British rock music, and at the harbour the names of American and Oriental companies are everywhere in view. Kaurismaki makes excellent use of minor characters, such as the drunken cook, the weak, craven bank manager, the semi-criminal cafe proprietor and the security guard who turns out to be Ilona’s most steadfast friend. Ilona and Lauri also have a small dog, whose long face and saturnine eyes provide an ironic commentary on surrounding events.

Kaurismaki’s characters are men and women who treat each other confidently as equals. They make terrible mistakes at times, but they have an underlying ability to solve problems in a rational way. Ilona and Lauri have strong values, not the false values of sugary Christian piety, but a practical, unsentimental wisdom and a sense of honour. Although the film ends on a positive note, it is imbued with nostalgic melancholy and a sense of something lost. Significantly, there is no next generation. The only child of Ilona and Lauri died in infancy. This tragic circumstance is never mentioned by the couple, but it holds them together and, we suspect, enables them to put the problems of unemployment in perspective.

Drifting Clouds implies that, if present trends persist, the co-operative values and local cultures of Europe will also die. It should be prescribed as compulsory therapy for those who talk so glibly of “market solutions”.

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