In Memoriam 1942 – 2013 “Roger Ebert loved movies.”

Thumb five acts poster

Jane Fonda in Five Acts

Director Susan Lacy has the great advantage of a subject whose life has been extensively documented literally since birth.

Thumb fahrenheit eleven nine

Fahrenheit 11/9

The messiness of Moore’s film starts to feel appropriate for the times we’re in. With a new issue being debated every day, is it any…

Other Reviews
Review Archives
Thumb xbepftvyieurxopaxyzgtgtkwgw

Ballad of Narayama

"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

Other Reviews
Great Movie Archives
Other Articles
Blog Archives


Drifting Clouds


Aki Kaurismäki is the 40-ish Finnish director of strange and quirky comedies, in which little people are crushed by vast economic systems, but they keep on truckin'. In "Drifting Clouds," a woman loses her job at a bankrupt restaurant, her husband is laid off by the transport system, their TV is repossessed, she pays her savings to an employment agency for another job, she isn't paid, and when her husband tries to collect he gets beaten up. But there's a happy ending.

Kaurismäki has enormous love for these characters. He embraces their comic pathos, and rejoices that they do not surrender. It's all done with such subtle irony that critics use words like "minimalist" to describe him--even though his screen is saturated with images and ideas, and true minimalism is more easily seen in something like "Armageddon," which has half an idea, and spreads it thinly over 144 minutes.


The heroine of "Drifting Clouds" is Ilona (Kati Outinen), a wan, sweet blond with a dour expression who works as the manager of a failing restaurant. The movie opens with a pianist singing of "the wonderful girl I love," and then there's a long shot of the interior, with customers seated at their tables like mourners at a wake. Lighting is used to highlight Ilona at her perch in the back of the shot, and after she seats a customer, there's a zoom in to her sad, thoughtful face.

There's a crisis in the kitchen. The cook is drunk again and brandishing a knife. After an offscreen struggle, the headwaiter returns to view with a bleeding wrist. Then Ilona disappears from the screen, there is a loud thud, she returns, and then we see the chef again, disconsolate. Kaurismaki loves to keep the action offscreen and focus on the reaction shots.

After closing, Ilona boards a streetcar and kisses the driver--her husband, Lauri (Kari Väänänen). At home, he covers her eyes to spring a surprise: a new TV set, bought on time. Of course they can't afford it (you can sense that in the haunted way they look at it), but as they sit side by side on a couch that's too small, we feel curious tenderness for them.

The couch is too small because Kaurismäki insists on bargain-basement sets; he wants his characters to always seem a little too large for their rooms and furniture, and the result is cartoonlike. Consider Ilona's interview with an employment agency; the interviewer's chair squeaks loudly as he confronts her across a desk that seems scaled for a grade-school classroom.

One misfortune follows another. The restaurant closes. The husband loses his job by drawing the wrong card in an office lottery. Ilona gets another job, in a restaurant where the owner is a tax cheat. Desperate to keep up appearances, she calls each order loudly into the kitchen before sneaking around a corner to cook it herself. The cook from the former restaurant appears, announcing, "I am on a journey to the end of vodka." And then, improbably, there is a happy ending, which I will not reveal except to observe that it involves a reservation for 30 from the perfectly titled Helsinki Workers' Wrestlers.


Like Godard, Jarmusch and Mark Rappaport, Kaurismäki pays great attention to the frame around his characters. Their costumes, their props, their sets and the colors all conspire to make each shot look deliberately composed, as if we're being asked to contemplate people trapped by, and defined by, their environment. Ilona always seems self-conscious, as if she's posing for her photo. There's a shot at a time when things are going badly; she stands next to the bookcases they've bought on credit, and her face remains impassive--but her earrings vibrate, and that's the giveaway that she's trembling.

Kaurismäki himself is a jovial, self-deprecating sort, reportedly hard-drinking; he said once that he doesn't move his camera a lot because "that's a nuisance when you have a hangover" (actually, his setups show infinite thought and patience). "I'm just a medium class of director," he told Jonathan Romney of Sight & Sound magazine. "I may never make a masterpiece, but if I make many quite good films, together they're something." That statement, which describes many of the most successful directors working today, would never be made by any of them; that Kaurismaki can look at his work so objectively helps to explain why it has such a dry, deadpan appeal.

Popular Blog Posts

"You Were Expecting Someone Else?" Why a Non-White James Bond is the Franchise's Logical Next Step

Not only would Idris Elba make a great James Bond, the franchise has been building towards casting an actor of color ...

Grace and Nature: On Criterion’s Release of The Tree of Life

On the new Criterion release of Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, which includes a new 50-minute-longer extended cu...

Jonah Hill, Emma Stone Star in Netflix’s Daring, Brilliant Maniac

A review of the phenomenal new Netflix show starring Jonah Hill and Emma Stone.

Who do you read? Good Roger, or Bad Roger?

This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...

Reveal Comments
comments powered by Disqus