Wednesday, October 19, 2011

PopMatters Feature: ReFramed No. 12 - Aki Kaurismäki's Drifting Clouds

In this week's installment, the ReFramed team discusses the Finnish filmmaker who, more than any other foreign filmmaker, influenced the contemporary American comedy we see today.
Calum Marsh: Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki is hardly a household name in this country, but his influence on contemporary American cinema simply cannot be overstated: beloved by Hollywood’s best and brightest and borrowed from liberally by more auteurs than you can count, I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to suggest that the comedy world has been to some extent defined by Kaurismäki’s contributions to it, even if sometimes indirectly. His authorial voice is so clearly defined (and consistently sustained) that it’s easy to spot imitators, though few have the gift for comic understatement that seems to come to him so naturally.

His most widely renowned disciple, the iconic indie legend Jim Jarmusch, practically built his career on copping Kaurismäki’s trademark deadpan, and as far as all that much-loved “sad and beautiful world” stuff goes, Jarmusch, to his credit, is probably the next best thing to his idol. But if you begin to account for the strong influence Jarmusch himself has had on lesser contemporaries—everything from Zach Braff’s entirely lame debut Garden State to the filmography of Jared Hess counts here, as far as I’m concerned—you get a pretty clear idea of just how deep Kaurismäki’s residual influence runs.

Our topic of discussion this week, the sad and beautiful Drifting Clouds, shows off just this distinctive sense of humor. But with an emotional range much broader than what you might find in his more straight-forward comedies like Leningrad Cowboys Go America, Drifting Clouds also speaks to Kaurismaki’s less-discussed skills as a dramatist. Steeped in melancholy and (almost) devoid of hope, this is a film that’s funny, yes, but also incredibly moving—disarmingly so, in fact, since the force of the thing is entirely unexpected. It’s really something else, as I imagine you’ll agree.

Jordan Cronk: What’s interesting about Drifting Clouds, and why I felt this should be our Kaurismäki selection when really any of his films deserve more exposure, is its current critical standing. His early films such as Ariel and particularly The Match Factory Girl tend to be the ones that most folks champion nowadays. In fact, from what I can tell, Drifting Clouds wasn’t all that well received by U.S. critics when it hit the festival circuit in 1996. Early supporters of Kaurismäki—those who exalted many of his prior works—must have felt burnt-out by his stylistic rigidity and dead-pan humor by this point (or by the proliferation of his influence, as you mention), and this only about halfway into his career (which continues this very week with the release of his newest film, Le Havre).

Which I find curious since Drifting Clouds plays to me—and eventually to a select group of others, as by the end of the decade the Cinémathèque Ontario had voted the film the third best of the 1990s, while Film Comment contributors ranked it as the fifth best unreleased foreign film of the decade—not only like the distillation and perfection of an aesthetic approach, but as you say, also as a three-dimensional, emotional tour-de-force in its own right. It’s certainly funny in a manner unique to Kaurismäki—a character in the film may sum it up best when he says “Supposed to be a comedy. I didn’t laugh once,” in reference to a film he just saw—but it’s so consistently imbued with an aching sense of melancholy that the humor becomes almost tragic. Importantly, the film isn’t entirely without hope, but it’s this sense of perseverance in the face of life’s inevitable hurdles that continues to stick with me.

Marsh: Yeah, that’s what sticks with me, too. In a sense this is a film about dealing with hardship, and most of its running time is dedicated to running its protagonists through the gauntlet of everyday life. Its well-meaning heroes, a working-class couple living in the middle of a pretty dour-looking Helsinki, are subjected to one iniquity after another—they lose their jobs, have their furniture repossessed, fall into heavy drinking, get ripped off, get beaten up, you name it—and for a while the whole thing seems almost oppressively bleak, particularly for a film billed as a comedy. These miniature tragedies seem comic close up, of course; making such trials and tribulations amusing is what Kaurismäki does best.

Yet real, palpable sadness hangs in the air, and a lingering sense of loss pervades the film (it’s probably worth mentioning that the actor for whom this film was written, a Kaurismäki regular and a good friend of the director, drank himself to death just before production started on the project). But I’d remiss to call Drifting Clouds a film without hope, which you’ve already noted is important—I don’t want to spoil anything for those who’ve not seen it, but the ending of this film is so immensely satisfying precisely because it’s so hopeful. Were you as bowled over by this ending as I was, Jordan? I swear my eyes got a little misty there for a moment.

Cronk: The very last shot of the film is great, certainly (this seems to be a prerequisite for our ReFramed selections lately), as it sort of redefines the film’s title in an interesting way. What for 90 minutes seems like a description of these characters’ plight becomes an optimistic metaphor for their future as a couple, which is all that they can count on throughout the narrative. It reminds me a bit of the end of Luis Buñuel’s final film, That Obscure Object of Desire. And while the film’s themselves don’t have much in common thematically, stylistically Buñuel seems like Kaurismäki’s most important precursor (there are also shades of Bresson here, of course, while Kaurismäki himself described the film as “a cross between Bicycle Thieves and It’s a Wonderful Life”).

What I like beyond the typically patient framing and compositional acumen in the film, however, is Kaurismäki’s deft use of color. He had shot in color a number of times prior to this, but by and large his black and white films (La vie de Boheme and Take Care of Your Scarf, Tatjana in particular) have proven to be my favorite visual experiences. Not that his color films weren’t expertly crafted, but Drifting Clouds really saw Kaurismäki upping the ante in this department. The primary color palette of the film really pops off the screen, and his masterful placement of bright tones is reminiscent of no one less than Ozu. Like The Match Factory Girl (which is in color but which I cite here for different aesthetic reasons), Drifting Clouds could easily play as a silent film, its tonal scheme so dramatically lit and contrasted, its mise-en-scène so stoic yet perfectly evocative.

Marsh: It has quite an interesting aesthetic, yes. To go back to what you were saying about his critical standing, one thing that’s always bothered me about how he’s been received by the critical institution is what’s said about him stylistically. I’ve no qualms with the acclaim directed his way, but the nature of that acclaim often strikes me as poorly conceived. Significantly, Kaurismäki has a reputation for being something of a minimalist, but that label is misleading—it’s true that he favors negative space over unnecessary action or dialogue, but his frames are packed with far too much detail to qualify as “minimal” in the traditional sense.

You could maybe even describe his visual style as extravagant, at least compared to the overtly “authentic” vérité look of so many other European filmmakers, and when his films do look genuinely spare it’s typically in order to more clearly underline some exaggerated detail. I suppose, like you mentioned, he’s not unlike Bresson in that regard, recognizing the consequence of simple gestures and framing them accordingly. And I agree that with Drifting Clouds in particular, his application of color is extraordinary, especially the way he employs all of those great, deep blues, which really set the tone of the film.

Cronk: I suppose when you utilize a mostly static cinematographic set-up, trim dialogue to a bare minimum, and keep humor so dry it’s inevitable that viewers will fall back on the minimalist description. One of Kaurismäki’s other major descendants, Wes Anderson, gets saddled with this description as well, despite cluttering the frame with almost too much detail. Kaurismäki isn’t quite so elaborate, but he is uncommonly intricate and cognizant of his framing devices.

You don’t need to look much further than a shot towards the middle of Drifting Clouds when Ilona, played by Kaurismäki’s longest running muse Kati Outinen, exits another defeating job inquiry face-on to the camera only for Kaurismäki to pull the shot back in rather dramatic fashion, revealing a passing tram which Ilona’s husband just minutes earlier had been relieved of his duties to commandeer. Kaurismäki consistently plays with these kinds of juxtapositions and sly visual gags, and it speaks again to his sense of composition that he can so subtly fill the frame with detail while still seeming to the untrained eye like a strict formalist.

Marsh: That subtly almost lends his films a sense of naturalism, too, even though, as we’ve already established, what winds up on screen is all very much deliberate. I think the important thing to take away from Kaurismaki’s work is that his style, however pronounced, is never privileged over the content of his films, even if that content is sometimes limited to light comedy. Some of Kaurismaki’s imitators make the mistake of leaning too heavily on that exaggerated formalism, which creates an impression of posturing that’s ultimately rather hollow. Drifting Clouds is sublime mainly because its characters are endearing and its themes are relatable, not because it looks and sounds a certain way—though there is much to like in those elements, too, of course. It’s a special sort of film in that way, much deeper than it seems at first glance. I’m not sure if it was ever received as such, though.

Cronk: And when one focuses too much on the stylistic confines of the style, it becomes even easier to overlook the humor and pathos inherent in the material. We’ve touched on the emotional aspect of the film already, but Drifting Clouds may also be the most outwardly funny film of Kaurismäki’s career (equal at least to The Man Without a Past in this regard). To be sure, these aren’t belly laughs, more like a series of grin-inducing ironies as these characters get ever-more buried in life’s everyday tribulations.

Ilona is told she’s too old to practice her profession (“head waitress”) on multiple occasions (once by a man even older than she, who responds that although he is over 50, he “wears contacts”), while her husband Lauri is laid-off his job literally through a game of chance. There’s also cinematic, familial, animal, and corporate humor touched upon throughout—all, as you say, deeper than at first may meet the eye. What you’re left with, then, are fully drawn characters, and in one of Kaurismäki’s longest films (a whopping 95 minutes), a fully conceived and presented world that seems to exist just outside of reality while still bearing characteristics of our basic human existence.

Marsh: Yeah, that’s the “tragicomic” angle—an ever so slight surreal worldview that borders on magic realism, but which is still totally grounded in something that feels real and relatable. And even though we’re encouraged to laugh at the nature of their misfortunes, which are exaggerated just enough to seem absurd, we’re not laughing at the blows so much as the precise way they’re dealt. It’s clear that Kaurismäki loves these characters, and if he puts them through the ringer it’s only to better celebrate their determination and resolve. That he allows them their eventual triumph, even if it’s maybe only fleeting, might have felt forced or incongruous at the end of a lesser film, but here it feels completely appropriate. You can’t help but believe that they’ve earned it, and that Kaurismäki ‘s earned the right to give it to them. [PM]

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