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  • Ravi Swami

"Drifting Clouds" /"Kauas Pilvet Karkaavat", Dir: Aki Kaurismäki, 1996

MUBI Channel currently have a selection of films by the Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki, who, if you're not familiar with his work, could be described as a Finnish Mike Leigh but with an added good helping of "Baltic Noir" sensibilities.

I was certainly aware of the director and his films came highly recommended by another film reviewer, but was I ready for what I imagined to be gritty, urban storytelling with a humanist slant, like 1970's / 80's British TV drama in a "Boys From The Blackstuff" vein and reflecting a country undergoing a post-war slump and economic crisis and eager to embrace a more West-facing attitude rather than that of their geographic neighbour and former imperial ruler, Communist Russia ?

Which explains one reason why I have been avoiding Kaurismäki's work, besides not especially being a fan of the type of "Nordic Noir" crime dramas that have a following on various streaming services recently.

"Drifting Clouds" is apparently the film that raised Kaurismäki's profile on the international stage even if his film are still very much rooted in Finnish and Scandinavian culture and concerns and in retrospect was a good introduction to his style, which both plays on stereotypes of the Scandinavian temperament without ever make fun of that particular gloomy world view, resulting in a film that is full of gentle irony and some humour.

"Illona (Kati Outinen), a head waitress at a "Ravintola" (Eng: "Restaurant") called "Dubrovnik" and "Lauri" (Kari Väänänen), a tram driver, both seem content with their outwardly grey lives in their small and sparsely furnished Helsinki apartment. When they return home from their respective jobs Lauri reveals that he has bought a new TV but it is via hire purchase and Illona is slightly concerned that they may not be able to maintain the payments on their meagre salaries. This provides an insight into their financial situation as low paid workers struggling to escape being working class but content with their lot at the same time.

Their cosy world is turned on its head when the restaurant announces closure and Illona is suddenly made jobless and Lauri's tram company announces lay-offs due to unprofitable tram routes, of which Lauri's is one.

Things then go from bad to worse as the pair try to apply for new jobs at a time when businesses are struggling to keep afloat during an economic crisis. Ilona's unstable former kitchen chef and the Dubrovnik's doorman are driven to drink and Lauri is considering doing the same, however, Illona manages to keep him on a more or less even keel.

After a fruitless search for employment IIlona makes an appointment with a dodgy employment agency where she must cough up 500 "markka" (this is before the introduction of the Euro) in order to receive a recommendation note for a job as a general dogsbody in a restaurant, but it is just a worthless piece of paper. The restaurant turns out to be a seedy bar run by a thuggish man who announces that his wife and business partner has left him to run a business he has no interest in and so he offers IIlona the job of being the sole employee, serving, taking orders and cooking for a range of rather depressed local clientele.

Lauri applies for a job a bus driver on long routes to St Petersburg but fails the medical on the grounds of his age and deafness in one ear, as a result he spends more time in their flat doing crosswords while IIlona tries to make a go of the bar/restaurant.

When tax inspectors visit the restaurant/bar it is IIlona who is left to explain why taxes have never been paid after she is threatened with dire consequences by her dodgy employer, who has also stolen her own tax records that she gave to him when she applied for the job.

Illona loses her job and Lauri, incensed, pays a visit to her former employer to demand her wages but is met with a beating by the employer and his thuggish friends who then drive him, unconscious, to the Helsinki dockside while discussing whether they should dump him in the Baltic.

Ashamed, Lauri recovers and spends the night in a seedy hotel, telling Illona by phone that he won't be returning home, something she won't allow to happen.

They concoct a last ditch attempt at pulling themselves out of their hole when Illona's former doorman suggests he partner with her to run a new "Ravintola" that she will run if they can stump up the finances, but when she arranges a meeting with her bank manager to discuss a loan and then introduces her business partner and guarantor (the former doorman) the bank manager is not convinced when he announces that he works in a "While U Wait" shoe mending business, so this plan also falls through too.

The last indignity to be heaped on the couple comes when she persuades Lauri to gamble their last savings in a casino in the hope of raising the finances for a new restaurant but of course, he loses everything.

Just when things could get no worse, a chance encounter with her former employer at the "Dubrovnik", at a hairdressing salon where she is applying for a job leads to a meeting where her former employer, a financially secure woman, "Rouva Sjöholm" (Elina Salo) offers to bankroll a new "Ravintola" that IIlona will run, re-employing her old out-of-work colleagues in the process, and after a shaky start the restaurant looks like being a roaring success, thus ending the film on a high note for the two central characters.

Spelled out in this fashion it doesn't take into account the dead-pan performances of all the cast save that of the former owner of the Dubrovnik - they take all the indignities and injustices heaped on them with something approaching stoic acceptance and there is an element of ironic tragi-comedy that runs through the film.

Technically, Kaurismäki employs imaginative ways of telling the story, such as sudden track-ins to close ups of Ilona's impassive face staring slightly off-screen, that seem to have become something of a defining feature of his films - I'll have to watch more of his films to see if this holds true. In one scene we understand that their young son must have died when IIlona passes a framed photo of him on a shelf and the camera holds on her expression that shifts from impassivity to utter sadness before she is snapped out of her reverie by the sound of a doorbell as Lauri returns home. The film ends with a crane shot looking down on the now happy couple outside their thriving new business as a popular Finnish song plays on the soundtrack.

It should be pointed out that film starts and ends with a song - over the opening titles an African American piano player in the "Dubrovnik" plays a song about separated lovers in English that helps to set the rather melancholy tone of the story.

I visited Helsinki for the first time in 2018 and if all you know about Finland is Tove Jansson's "Moomin", as I did at the time, then the film reveals another side that isn't immediately apparent until you visit the country, such as the number of Russian Orthodox churches that dot the city and that attest to the reach of the pre-Communist Russian empire. A short boat trip to one of the many small islands off the Baltic Coast, Suomenlinna, is the location a military barracks built by the Swedish crown in 1748 to defend against Russian expansionism, besides being a popular tourist destination.

"Drifting Clouds" is a great introduction to Aki Kaurismäki's films and I'll certainly be watching the other films of his available on MUBI Channel right now, and if you don't know what "Baltic Noir" is, then you will by the end of the film..:)

"Drifting Clouds" /"Kauas Pilvet Karkaavat", Dir: Aki Kaurismäki, 1996

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