Aki Kaurismäki’s 20th film keeps his signature humor and style. Fallen Leaves, starring Alma Pöysti and Jussi Vatanen as lonely, meant-to-be lovers, finds the Finnish director at one of the peaks of his career, with his most recent film coming six years ago. In that time, the world has missed the droll comedy, dry warmth, and simplicity of Kaurismäki.
Fallen Leaves features everything one might want from a romcom in 2023: a cute dog, a one-liner about Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die, and a singular karaoke scene in which neither of the main characters get on stage. Both Pöysti and Vatanen are wonderful, each of their characters existing in a state of hyperextended loneliness, finding one another through initial circumstance, then thrust together even when everything else seems intent on keeping them apart. Ansa (Pöysti) and Holappa (Vatanen), in many ways, need one another. Their lives are given a bolt of energy after they first meet. Surrounding them, the war in Ukraine rages on. The world burns in the background, yet hope and love permeate the story. The lasting impression becomes one of comfort, not coldness.
A tender 81 minutes, Kaurismäki’s comedy sits in silence. The director has no qualms with this silence, no need to fill the air with dialogue, no desire to put words into these characters’ mouths. Instead, these two people drift through Helsinki, losing jobs, gaining companionship, and falling in love, possibly for the first time in their lives. At least that’s what Pöysti thinks.
Pöysti comes from a filmmaking family. With grandparents as actors and a father as a director, her career seems to have been generational. Her background in theater has led to a steady job in film, including acclaim for her starring role in 2020’s Tove. But Fallen Leaves represents a different task: her first film with Kaurismäki. It’s an opportunity she didn’t take for granted.
With Finland’s Oscar entry now arriving in U.S. theaters from MUBI, we talked with the Finnish actor about her preparation to play Ansa, how she found the perfect smile for the character, and the impact that a dog can have on one person’s life. Unlike her character, Pöysti smiled wide, laughed, and joked early and often.
The Film Stage: When was the last time you watched the film?
Alma Pöysti: I saw it in Mexico, actually, two weeks ago now. I like to spy on audiences in different countries. This has been a small mission of mine, since I get to travel with the film. It’s wonderful to see how it lands and how people react, and it seems to work everywhere.
So you enjoy watching it again?
This one I do. I don’t always look at things that I’m in. But this one I am also very curious about because I find new things in the movie all the time––small details, small references, these hidden gems. I enjoy that. I don’t look at myself; I’m not obsessed. It’s nice to look at everything else that went into the movie.
Is that common for you, having the ability to watch your films?
It doesn’t happen all the time. Some things I don’t watch at all, and some things I enjoy seeing because I’m making it for someone else. I’m curious to see what it is we made when it’s all put together. And also very curious about the audience. I guess maybe there’s that theater actor in me. When you work with a camera, you miss that connection. This is a small wait to reconnect with where it’s supposed to land.
Have you seen differences in how the film has landed in different areas of the world?
Some cultures are more dramatic and some have a more morbid humor than others. It really seems to work everywhere. Aki has got this very unique and absolutely brilliant sense of humor. It works as well in Germany as it does here and in Mexico, and in a week I’ll be in Japan. I know that people are huge fans of his work there. We’re getting messages from all around the world from people who’ve seen the movie and they are so touched, and they thank us for giving them hope. That’s the best thing you could ever ask for.
Photos by Arin Sang-urai.
Do you get that hopeful sense, too, when you watch it as an audience member?
I feel like I’m watching a fairy tale somehow, and that you’re kind of in a safe place for a while. In this quite harsh and also cynical world we live in. It doesn’t beat around the bush. It’s a rough love story as well, the people who inhabit his world are going through some rough things, and it’s very connectable and relatable. There’s still hope, though: he shows the dark sides of life, and there’s such a deep humanism that somehow inspires me. To be a better person somehow. To care more.
I know that Kaurismäki didn’t want you to rehearse much and only wanted you to read and reread the script a couple of times. How else did you try to get into this character?
I rewatched all his movies––that was one way. I like to spy on the directors, the nervous system and their brains and their hearts to be able to tell their stories. This was perfect, because he’s done 20 movies. There’s a lot at this point. I don’t want to copy what actors have done before in his work, but I want to be connected to it. Maybe like a distant cousin to some other actors that have been in his movies. So it feels like you’re a link in a long chain of the films. I want to somehow respect that and have it in my heart.
I went to work a little bit in the places that Ansa works. I went to the supermarket and was interning there for a little while, and then went to a bar and then I went to the factory to get comfortable there. A hands-on approach without rehearsing, but getting into the mindset of the role. Then I realized, in the script, everything is there––if I just read it carefully enough, then I’m gonna get all the clues. For example, the way she handles that electric bill and she immediately goes to pull the plug. That says volumes about that woman, and how she just handles things. There needs to be a solution; she doesn’t sit around and wait when she’s in trouble. And the line about her parents, her whole family somehow being destroyed by alcohol and grief: that also says everything about where she comes from, and maybe that she doesn’t trust or love or how to have high expectations for the whole relationship world. It says a lot about her loneliness, that she’s been alone for quite a while.
How do you attempt to put all of that emotion––the grief, loneliness, attitude––into the first few, quiet scenes of the film? Especially since there isn’t always tons of dialogue.
You just have to somehow trust clarity of thought. If it’s clear what you’re doing and who she is, then you just have to be and not show. Trust that it’s there in my spine, this knowledge that I have about her and it’s in her cells, and that’s something I share with the role. It’s very easy to trust Aki as well because he’s done this for such a long time. I realized that it’s a lot about taking away the layers and being as pure and as honest and bare as possible. It’s got a lot to do with trust.
How do you think Ansa feels about her life? How does she see her life thus far?
She’s also very proud. She’s got a strong spine. She’s proud of the fact that she can put food on the table, even if it’s stolen. But she gets by––she can pay her rent, she doesn’t have to rely on society or a husband. She’s a very independent and strong Finnish woman in that sense. Her friends, they are this chosen family. The loyalty she has with them is so powerful and beautiful. That scene when they all come together, it gives them so much power in a system that really does not appreciate them. She’s given up on the dating scene. She’s somehow a little bit past her due date. She’s not a teenager. There’s still this pride in her that I really respect. She’s got an ability that she sees good in people––or dogs, for that matter. That’s her superpower.
I like that––focused on the layers to a single person.
I also think that the dog, they really save each other at that point of the story. The dog comes in when she’s thrown away that second plate and she’s given up on that guy, and realizes that he’s not gonna change anything––he’s not coming back––and it’s such a disappointment for her. Then the dog also chooses her––the dog chooses to stay there––and they become these companions. I think there’s more to it than just a cute dog. There’s quite an important partnership.
You mentioned her age, and I’ve heard you discuss the idea of falling in love at this point in life in other interviews. Can you tell me about that idea?
I bet it’s terrifying. Of course, also thrilling and exciting and wonderful, but also very scary. And they’re both so shy, these two, so it takes a lot of courage for them to actually step up. It’s destiny when their eyes meet in the karaoke bar, like they’ve been struck by lightning. Even in the script, it said that Holappa gets so upset by this look that he needs to go away and smoke. Such small, wonderful details. It really shakes them and it’s so totally unexpected for them. When you lead a lonely life, that’s quite a comfortable bubble. You have total control. There’s no one there messing around and no one there to disappoint you. That’s what you’re risking––you’re risking the disappointment and the heartbreak. Being single can be also safe, in a way. Also lonely, of course.
Then there comes a point when she wants nothing more than for him to be there. It’s such a tough decision that she makes at the dinner, when she sees him at the bottle again and she says, “I love you, but I won’t have your problem.” That must hurt so much to do that. But she somehow protects herself. She doesn’t become codependent. She doesn’t set out to save him in that way. And that’s a very, almost radical thing to do. Because when you’re in love, you very easily become codependent on someone. She’s a wise, wise woman. She’s very familiar with sorrow and tough decisions.
There’s so much silence in the film. I’m curious about your thoughts and comfort in this kind of silence.
They’re having silent conversations all the time. There’s a lot of dialogue going on between them without a word being spoken. And that goes on throughout the movie. That is a very Finnish trait. We are very, very silent people, and that’s something that we also seek with each other, to be able to be silent together. It’s very comfortable and quite deep. You share a silence but these two, they get each other and there are no unnecessary words. Sometimes when they speak, it’s more awkward than when they don’t. I love the dinner scene when they somehow tried to behave like you are supposed to on a date. They really make an effort to have a conversation and it’s maybe not even needed in terms of the connection they have.
Ansa is always listening to the news on the war in Ukraine followed by these sad love songs. It feels like more sorrow for someone already filled with it. Why do you think has this routine?
In terms of the news, she wants to be part of this society and no one knows what’s going on. She’s on top of things. The war is there all the time. And in Finland, it’s closer to us than––perhaps, of course––here, because we share such a long border with Russia. It’s a backdrop to the story all the time. It’s also maybe a reminder of how fragile life is and how it’s taken away in a heartbeat. You got this one life. What are you going to do about it? That’s what it’s whispering in between the lines, but this is just my interpretation of it.
But about the ballads and the sad songs: I guess when you’re sad, it helps to listen to sad music because then you’re not alone. That someone else felt this way and could put words to it. You can take yourself into a very comfortable, warm black hole. That’s not uncommon. Some cheerful music at that point would just be irritating.
That’s fair and I understand that. I think I just, personally, go back and forth between sad music for that reason and happy music to cheer me up. But it almost feels repetitive, almost cyclical for Ansa.
That’s true. But I remember in my youth being heartbroken, then you really listen to those songs. She’s experiencing love for the first time. She is teenage, somehow. It’s a way of dealing with it: you have to hit rock bottom before you can dig yourself up again.
Ansa wears shades of red throughout the film, even matching her couch and her kitchen and other parts of her apartment. What was the significance of that color to you and to the character?
For me, it’s very simple: it’s hope and her heart. She sleeps in a red gown, and when she goes out she wears red at the karaoke bar and at the dinner scene. Someone made a comment that when Holappa comes to the date, he’s got the same colors as the exterior of her apartment. She’s wearing the colors of the inside, of the interior. I think it’s extremely funny. I hadn’t realized that before but Aki works a lot with colors. He’s very conscious and you can see a red detail in the frames. It carries some kind of expectation or hope. When there’s something going on she puts on a red dress. It really means something.
When something positive happens in the film, you flash this soft, soft smile. You even wink right at the end. How did those small flashes of emotion come about––were they your choice or in the script? For example, how did you know how big to smile?
It was both. Aki was very exact about the smiles and they are in the scripts. The script said, “Ansa smiles and it lights up the whole room.” And then I asked him, “So how big is the room?” And he said, “Four times four meters.” The wink wasn’t in the script but it came on the day; he asked for it. And I just love that it feels like Ansa is getting to be more comfortable or confident in herself at that point. Also, when you don’t smile that much throughout the movie, then those small smiles, they mean so much. They really, really do. I love that scarcity of expression, then everything becomes so meaningful. It’s quite rare. I’ve never met a director like this before. It’s very inspiring to see how everything can be so conscious and alive and spontaneous in a way that it’s vibrating under the surface.
I love that idea: the scarcity of expression.
Because it’s still full of life, even though the expression is minimalistic. There’s still beating hearts and souls there.
Fallen Leaves is now in theaters.