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Drifting Clouds

review by David Dalgleish

"Take a number, fill out a form, and wait your turn."

3 out of ****

It might be possible to call Drifting Clouds a satire or a black comedy, but that would imply a sense of anger, of vitriol, of energy; Drifting Clouds is what you get when the rage and vitality are gone. It is the sad, slow story of Lauri and Ilona, a married couple caught between the wheels of capitalism as it grinds inexorably onward. He loses his job as a tram driver, because everyone drives cars nowadays. Within a couple of months, she loses her position as a head waiter, when her restaurant is bought out by a chain and the entire staff replaced.

A conversation early in the film reveals a lot about their situation. Lauri has surprised Ilona by buying her a TV, which she greets with little enthusiasm. She notes that they haven't finished paying for the bookshelves or the couch yet. He says that in four years the payments will be done and then they can buy some books for the shelves. It would pass as deadpan humour if it wasn't spoken with such resigned weariness.

This sets the tone for the rest of the movie. There is humour and idiosyncracy at the periphery, but at the centre there is frustration and futility, and sorrow for the ways in which the logic of profit reduces people, until their worth is equated solely with their earning capacity. There is an element of political commentary in this critique of the mechanisms of capitalism and the stultifying social environment it creates, but in Drifting Clouds the political is subsumed by the personal: the movie is about two people and what happens to them, and nothing else matters.

Lauri and Ilona live lives starved for friendship, respect, culture, passion. They go to the movies, and walk out past old posters for L'Atalante and L'Argent, but the movie they have just seen is a pointless, violent, unfunny comedy. Their house and workplaces are uniformly unpleasant, painted and upholstered in lifeless colours (ugly greens, dull reds, insipid blues), full of inelegantly functional objects and appliances. The art design is impeccable in its tawdriness, and director Aki Kaurismaki often matches the colour of characters' clothes with the background colour and/or lighting, so that it seems as if they are almost physically fading into the environment. There is no suggestion of sexuality in the relationship; Ilona and Lauri sleep in separate beds and their gestures of affection lack the heat of desire; their lives are now bound by something more complex and desperate than love.

Their downward, downsized, downtrodden lives have a momentum that is almost comic, as one setback succeeds another, bottoming out when Lauri stakes all their remaining money on the spin of a roulette wheel. It must have been tempting to play the story for more laughs, more farce, more deadpan wit, but the film's great strength is the sober, empathic manner in which it observes Lauri and Ilona's misfortunes. Irony would be an injustice. Situations and settings are broad and exaggerated--this is not realism--but they are not distorted. The emotions are authentic.

If it is difficult to laugh at anything that happens, despite the droll performances, the laconic humour, that's because Kaurismaki brings such compassion and understanding to the manifold indignities that are suffered. He shows us how humiliating it must be for a woman of thirty-eight, who has worked long and hard to win a respectable position, to be forced to accept a job as a dishwasher in a two-bit restaurant; how humiliating it must be for a man nearing 50 to confront his wife's former employer, demanding the rest of her wages, only to have the crap beaten out of him, unable to land a single punch, when the employer and his cronies refuse to give him the money.

All this is observed keenly, with great economy: every cut, every line of dialogue, is judicious. If most films are novelistic in their telling, this one brings the focus and concentration of a short story to bear. But what is gained in nuance and acumen is rather undermined by the sense that the material barely accommodates the 96-minute running length. I have seen many movies far less profound, less humane, less necessary than Drifting Clouds, but they filled me with an urge to watch them again, and this one did not. It does not need to be seen twice: its every detail and implication can be absorbed in one viewing.

It is not a movie that will be seen by a large audience, because it cannot be pitched to one. There is no selling point. It is all understatement, restraint, melancholy. The characters are unremarkable, their best years behind them, their dreams dissipated; it takes all the effort they can muster just to pay the bills. This does not make them less fascinating, merely less marketable, which is a shame, because this is a movie which should be seen, precisely because it pays attention to people and emotions that most movies prefer to ignore. It engages us and touches us and resolves--surprisingly, and movingly--into something resembling a happy ending. The only thing greater than the ill-luck that governs the characters' lives is their refusal to give in to despair. Their persistence is rewarded with what might be called a "feel-good" ending elsewhere, but not here, because this ending differs in kind from most such endings: this one has truly been earned.

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