In 2006, Aki Kaurismäki was asked what he felt young filmmakers lacked. His response was almost Cartesian: “Humility,” the director suggested, “Above all, it is necessary to forget oneself.” The Finnish auteur returns with Fallen Leaves, a charming, moving, bittersweet romance packed with all the lovely things we’ve come to associate with him after four decades. The locations and colors still come in admirable shades of mustard and pea soup––as do the characters and their moods. As a film, Fallen Leaves could hardly be simpler––two people living separate, lonesome lives meet and maybe fall in love––but there is beauty in that simplicity and, as ever, Kaurismäki’s characters live far richer inner lives.
Few filmmakers warm the soul with such economy: Fallen Leaves is funny, heartbreaking, and only 82 minutes long. Alma Pöysti stars as Ansa, a supermarket worker who loses her job when she’s caught pocketing an expired sandwich. Somewhere close by, a contract worker named Hollapa (Jussi Vatanen) is losing his. They meet-cute at a karaoke night and eventually go to the movies, where Ansa writes her phone number on a piece of paper––then, in a heart-stopping vignette, it blows away. Slick and goofy, Vatanen easily wins your affection as Hollapa, even as his alcoholism suggests a red flag. Calm, kind, and self-reliant as Ansa, Pöysti easily wins them, too.
The film is said to be a late addition to the director’s seminal Proletariat series (Shadow in Paradise, Ariel, The Match Factory Girl), and clearly the old socialist (who used to work as a postman) has lost none of his admiration for human solidarity or the little rhythms of a daily grind. Kaurismäki just gets it: that you can tell more about a person from the movies they watch, or the way they look out the window on their bus ride home, than from something as ungainly as dialogue. With allusions to Ozu title on down, Fallen Leaves is as full of references to classic cinema (“after that, you must concentrate,” Kaurismäki continued back in 2006, “which means you must watch a hundred more movies”) as it is to the director’s own work. There are nods to Chaplin and (of course) Brief Encounter. There are one or two wonderfully dingy boozers with exotic-sounding names. There are live performances––amongst them a traditional song by Hollapa’s friend (a man of admirable self-belief) and, better yet, a lovely synth-pop tune from the Swedish group Maustetytöt.
One of the most endearing things about Kaurismäki’s work is that his stylized version of 1980s Helsinki has stayed the same: there are almost no mobile phones in Fallen Leaves and people still listen to analog radios. Whenever the director decides to introduce an outsider into his world (like the refugee protagonists of Le Havre and Other Side of Hope) it’s meant to feel like an anachronism, but the joke is never on them. Amongst other things in Leaves, Alma listens to broadcasts on the Russian invasion of Ukraine and chastises an employer for issuing zero-hour contracts. When Hollapa loses a job, two migrant workers look on respectfully––neither speak, but a closeup is never insignificant. If Kaurismäki’s work can look frozen in time, its richness comes less from style than an ability to express his evolving passions, his politics, and his worldview.
Fallen Leaves premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival and will be released by MUBI.