Drifting Clouds (1996)

4 stars

A compassionate if often amusing film centering on a couple facing unemployment that sees Kaurismäki in his own element.

Dir. Aki Kaurismäki
1996 | Finland | Drama/Comedy| 97 mins | 1.85:1 | Finnish 
PG (passed clean)

Cast: Kati Outinen, Kari Väänänen
Plot: The recession hits a couple in Helsinki.
Awards: Won Prize of Ecumenical Jury – Special Mention (Cannes)
Source: Finnish Film Foundation

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: General Arthouse


Review #1,638

(Reviewed at the Finnish Film Festival ’18 – first published 12 Nov 2018)

Spoilers: No

The first (and my favourite) of Aki Kaurismäki’s “Finland” trilogy sees the country’s finest directing export take on unemployment as a core theme in what feels like one of his better efforts in his second decade as a filmmaker. The title “Drifting Clouds” only makes sense in the final shot of the film, but what transpires in the 90-plus minutes before that is a precise work that foregrounds the unique mise-en-scene of Kaurismäki’s style—full of droll and poker-face interactions.

My first ever Kaurismäki film was his most recent, The Other Side of Hope (2017), which on hindsight couldn’t have been more similar to Drifting Clouds, but tackling a different subject matter (that of the refugee crisis) in a very familiar way. In Drifting Clouds, the recession hits a middle-aged couple, one a head waitress (Kati Outinen) of a restaurant that is closing down, while the other is a tram driver (Kari Väänänen) whose daily route has been excised from the system.

“Let’s take the whole bottle, it’s cheaper.”

They are a lovely couple, Ilona and Lauri respectively, showing their love for each other in odd ways (such as the scene where Lauri reveals to Ilona a surprise television set that he has bought with an installment plan), with the actors playing them giving us deadpan performances to savour. The result is an often amusing film with a serious theme, a light-hearted yarn with enough pathos, and a compassionate work that belies its sometimes bleak and drab atmosphere.

It is still a ‘feel good’ movie, and Kaurismäki sees the positive, persevering side of humanity in the face of domestic trouble, while at the same time, making a pointed jab at shady entities that help to find jobs for people for a hefty fee. Perhaps the most striking moment in which the desperation for hope (or luck) becomes uncomfortably real comes from a relatively quiet scene of Ilona waiting for Lauri to come out of a casino (hopefully bearing good news). Like The Other Side of Hope, Drifting Clouds also centers on the competitive restaurant business where the characters seem to exercise their intuition to try to improve on their circumstance while also not inadvertently taking the wrong step that might lead to a personal catastrophe.

Featuring one of the most compelling opening credits sequences in a Kaurismäki film—that of a black jazz singer performing solo on the piano to a casual group of diners (a loving reference to 1942’s Casablanca)—we are immediately sensitised to not just the distinctive filmmaking style on show, but also to be introduced to Ilona in her workplace. She becomes our emotional anchor point and the film’s central (straight) face, keeping it ticking along with deadpan grace.

Grade: A-



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