They’re probably a couple, looking out at what seems to be the middle distance, until you realise that there’s a mirror placed, at an unusually high level, half-obscured by a pile of tea towels or some such linen, their ease of access indicating they’re called on a lot in this household. The couple is Lauri (“not yet fifty”, as he says in this very scene) and Ilona (38). There’s a studiousness about them that suggests a moment of some importance. Ilona, with her dressing gown belted like a corset and her 1950s kitchenware, looks like the doomed heroine of a Douglas Sirk melodrama. But the era is the early 90s and Lauri and Ilona are the protagonists of an Aki Kaurismäki film, Drifting Clouds (1996). It is a film in which the characters and the viewers sense the musty shroud of poverty creep up on them. But for all that it is not unburdened of hope. The strange high angle of their kitchen mirror allows them to rehearse the hopeful stance that they find themselves assuming for so much of the film their necks are likely to seize in an eternal crick, if the continuous setbacks they experience don’t knock them back out of shape.
The moment of import is a job interview, for which Lauri has scrabbled together a semblance of formality. At the start of the film, both are employed, Lauri as a tram driver and Ilona as the maître d’ in an old-fashioned restaurant. They seem happy but ultimate happiness is elusive,kept at one, two, three, four removes. Everything is paid for on hire purchase, including the big colour TV that Lauri surprises Ilona with early in the film.
But after the breakup of the Soviet Union and the collapse of Finland’s number one trading partner the cold winds of recession blow over the country. Both lose their jobs. First Lauri, who keeps his redundancy a secret from Ilona for a month (“Most the routes don’t make any money. Half the people drive and half take the Metro. The rest can’t afford to walk.”) Then Ilona, whose cherished restaurant Dubrovnik is bought out by creditors. Both find it hard to adjust. Lauri loses his license – and a job driving coaches – when it is found he is almost deaf in one ear. Ilona is told she is too old to work in restaurants – “But I’m only 38,” she says, only to be told, “exactly, you could drop dead any minute,” by a man who is over 50 but “has contacts”.
The couple are childless but during the film we see briefly the portrait of a smiling boy, whose identity is otherwise unexplained but can easily be guessed at. Kaurismäki provides a twist that would be lost on many viewers – the child in the photo is Matti Pellonpää, his regular leading man, who died relatively young the previous summer. Ilona’s grief is further hinted at when she leaves off cleaning, saddened by news reports of a tsunami in the Philippines and the execution of the Nigerian poet Ken Saro-Wiwa.
People with hangdog looks are two a penny in Kaurismäki films but in Drifting Clouds he chose to hang one on an actual dog. Pietari perches on the ironing board, attentive to his master and mistress’ needs and concerns. He is ever present throughout the film and goes everywhere with Lauri and Ilona. He provides the sort of unstinting, unwavering loyalty that only a good dog can. And Pietari’s performance – for that is his name in real life – is impressive.
The objects we see in the picture are significant in both the film and in Kaurisamäki’s work in general. The retro kitchen appliances are commonplace yet they are more than simply kitsch nostalgic signifiers for the director who was born in 1957. In the lives of his characters, these clunking, CFC-wheezing, lead-lined hulks are the only constants. “Trees still grow,” says Lauri defiantly after he loses his job. But the appurtenances of a contented domestic life are less assured. The new colour television gets repossessed as the couple fail to meet their payments. The furniture follows. But the old vacuum cleaner, toaster, radio and TV remain. Neither are the truths of the world assured, Ilona, at a job interview, says that the Dubrovnik was the ‘best restaurant in town’ only to be cruelly told, ‘yes… after the war.’
The ironing board appears throughout the film, as emblematic as the ironing board in John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger was. But with Osborne, it was a symbol of stifling domesticity. With Kaurismäki, it is indicative rather of domestic order and reassurance: when Lauri leaves Ilona briefly, ashamed at being unable to stand up to her thuggish employer, the saddest pointer to his loneliness is the fact that he is forced to iron his shirts on the top of a bedside locker. The ironing board is part of the film’s tribute to work, not a grimly puritanical or Stakhanovite valorisation but a eulogy to the simple efforts of ordinary people in their everyday labours and the dignity that goes with it. Lauri cleaves so tightly to this ideal that he proudly refuses to draw the dole, further imperilling himself and Ilona.
Kaurismäki’s characters inhabit a world that flits in and out of the actual one, it’s not real but it is realistic. Like Fassbinder, he plots only the salients of his drama and his characters bud as the films progress. His films lead off from a standing jump; the characters, like the hero of his best-known film The Man Without a Past, have no past history to begin with. It fills itself in gradually. His method of working with actors (usually the same ones) is always the same: he allows them one day of rehearsal and no more so their performances never become too ‘actorly’; they are always pitched between naturalism and the expressive passivity that wheedles the secrets, sorrows and emotions out of characters that are summoned as if from thin air. It’s not for nothing that Kaurismäki is the only major film director for more than 75 years to have made a silent film, his 1999 adaptation of Juhani Aho’s classic novel Juha.
Drifting Clouds, like all of Kaurismäki’s films, is neither blindly optimistic nor masochistically despairing. But it recognises the simple desires of people, to paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut, all its characters want something, even if it’s only a glass of water. Some people might claim that Kaurismäki resolves too easily some of the problems he sets himself in the film but the clouds of the title drift, they never completely disappear. It’s not a perfect film but few good films are perfect. He allows his characters to be, as well as essentially good, naïve, stupid, mean and wrong. But he is always on their side and the one thing that is never excluded in a Kaurismäki film is hope, because that, no matter how misplaced or impossible it might be, is what people do.
Originally published by Under the Influence.