An early episode in Drifting Clouds encapsulates the wry, droll, yet affectionate fusion of pathos and comedy that has come to define Aki Kaurismäki’s idiosyncratic cinema. A diligent and conscientious maître d’ named Ilona (Kati Outinen) attends to the dwindling, aging clientele of a once popular, upscale postwar restaurant called Dubrovnik, before being summoned into the kitchen for an emergency. The head chef (Markku Peltola) has been found in a drunken state again, and is brandishing a knife in front of the staff to prevent confiscation of his alcohol. The burly porter, Melartin (Sakari Kuosmanen), confronts the inebriated chef off camera and returns into frame clasping his bloodied, injured wrist from the scuffle. The slight and delicate Ilona then steps in (and off camera), a slap is heard, and Ilona reemerges in the foreground with the kitchen knife and two liquor bottles, followed by the dejected and visibly apologetic chef.
After work, Ilona’s evening returns to a more familiar routine, as she boards an empty trolley car, kisses the driver – her husband Lauri (Kari Väänänen) – on the cheek, waits for him to return the trolley car to the station at the end of his shift, then the two drive home together. Arriving home, Lauri surprises her with a television set that he had purchased on an installment plan. Ilona frets over the additional incurred expense, remarking that they still have outstanding debt from the purchase of their couch and bookshelf, but Lauri reassures her that their expenses are under control, rationalizing “We’ll manage it, four years. Then we can buy some books, too.” However, their financial situation unexpectedly changes when the transportation department decides to restructure unprofitable routes within a month, and Lauri’s position is selected for termination by a random low card draw. In an understatedly comical scene, Lauri redirects his frustration over his unemployment by complaining to the movie theater operator (who, coincidentally, is his sister) that the unnamed comedy that they had just seen was “unbearable rubbish”, having ironically walked past the lobby posters of Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth (where Väänänen appears in the Helsinki episode), Robert Bresson’s L’Argent, and Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante. Laurie’s opportunities for new employment become even more limited when his commercial driver’s license is revoked after failing a hearing test, and in disappointment, gets drunk at a local bar. The couple is delivered yet another financial setback when the restaurant owner (Elina Salo) is forced to sell Dubrovnik to a restaurant conglomerate to repay her bank loan, and Ilona and the entire staff are given their severance notices. Encountering few, and increasingly bleak, prospects in a recession-afflicted Helsinki, the hapless couple find themselves struggling to return to the normalcy of their mundane and uneventful life.
Aki Kaurismäki presents an incisive, subversively funny, and compassionate portrait of love, marriage, and perseverance in Drifting Clouds. Using signature elements of deadpan humor, vivid color palette, kitschy mise-en-scene, and irony of situation, Kaurismäki reflects the disillusionment, crisis of identity, and existential angst of a country struggling to cope with the impact of a post Cold War-induced recession: the chef’s alcohol abuse (which is amusingly commented on as an occupational hazard), Lauri’s reluctant sale of his disproportionately oversized Buick automobile, and the restaurant owner’s resigned acceptance of her failure to modernize. In an understated and poignant scene, an anxious and distracted Ilona immovably stands beside a picture of their lost young son, represented by a childhood photograph of the late actor and Kaurismäki regular, Matti Pellonpää (whose own weakness for alcohol contributed to his untimely death), for whom the film is dedicated. It is a reflection of the personal toll and sense of despair that pervades the film’s bleak and oppressive urban landscape, and the inexorable bonds of love, hope, and community that galvanizes the human spirit in the face of overwhelming pain and insurmountable adversity.
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