TIFF 2023 | Fallen Leaves (Aki Kaurismäki, Finland/Germany) — Centrepiece

By Jordan Cronk.

Published in Cinema Scope #95 (Summer 2023).

At 81 minutes, Aki Kaurismäki’s Fallen Leaves was the shortest film in a bloated Cannes competition. It was also among the best, accomplishing more with less (and in less time) than any number of overwrought productions, a notion evidently shared by at least some members of Ruben Östlund’s jury, which awarded the film its namesake third runner-up prize, making this only the second honour Kaurismäki’s received from Cannes after winning the Grand Prix for The Man Without a Past in 2002. Billed as a belated fourth entry in the 66-year-old Finnish director’s “Proletariat Trilogy,” Fallen Leaves does re-engage the working-class woe and bittersweet ennui of Shadows in Paradise (1986), Ariel (1988), and The Match Factory Girl (1990), but it otherwise operates in just about every conceivable way as any Kaurismäki film before or since. Which should come as no surprise: few modern filmmakers have proven as tonally, stylistically, and thematically consistent as Kaurismäki, whose every new feature—which come at a sadly reduced clip—feels like a dispatch not from some alternate or past reality (as some critics would have you believe), but one of such disenchantment with the present that any vestige of innocence must be preserved in an effort to endure the perversions of everyday life.

An autumnal work in every sense, Fallen Leaves tells a distinctly contemporary tale of life during wartime. But unlike David Byrne, who had time for neither dancing or lovey-dovey, Kaurismäki’s protagonists have nothing but time for such distractions. When star-crossed lovers Ansa (Alma Pöysti) and Holappa (Jussi Vatanen) first meet at a Helsinki karaoke bar with friends Liisa (Nuppu Koivu) and Huotari (Janne Hyytiäinen), things couldn’t be more bleak: both are stuck in dead-end jobs—Ansa at a supermarket, where she diligently stocks shelves; Holappa at a construction site, where he drunkenly operates heavy machinery—and after punching out, either spend their evenings, as Ansa does, eating microwavable dinners and listening to news of the war in Ukraine on the radio, or, pace Holappa, at the local watering hole commiserating with other blue-collar eccentrics. As Huotari belts out an old rockabilly tune on stage, Ansa and Holappa make eyes at one another from across the bar, and, soon after—and without so much as exchanging names—make plans to go to a movie. Naturally, Holappa chooses Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die (2019), which, as the couple stand in front of a Brief Encounter (1954) poster outside the cinema, an overeager patron compares to Bresson’s Journal d’un curé du campagne—humorously triangulating a stylistic lineage that Kaurismäki has spent a career recasting in his own image. Suitably smitten, Ansa jots down her number on a piece of paper—which Holappa lets flutter away the moment she walks off.

The fable-like quality of Fallen Leaves stands in contrast to Kaurismäki’s recent films Le Havre (2011) and The Other Side of Hope (2017) which, for all their deadpan humour and whimsy, deal directly with the European migrant crisis. But if Fallen Leaves’ political concerns are for the most part relegated to the radio waves (and in a very Kaurismäkian touch, the radios in the film seem a relic of some half-remembered ’60s sitcom), the resultant anxiety still manages to infect the characters, who appear throughout in a state of suspended animation only partly attributable to their social status. While Holappa takes to the bottle (“I drink because I’m depressed, and I’m depressed because I drink,” he handily summarizes), Ansa is fired for giving away expired supermarket food to a homeless man—a small but earnest act of humanity that the world must punish in order to maintain the status quo. Fallen Leaves is a film predicated on the duality of fate: on the one hand, the plebeians are being exploited and war rages just across the border; on the other, a series of mistakes and miscommunications can beget a chance encounter or two. When the would-be couple do meet again, Ansa politely takes the responsibility out of Holappa’s hands, inviting him to dinner at her apartment. She’ll need a new plate, as she only owns one, but her optimism outweighs any expense. If only Holappa didn’t drink. “He thought my place was a pub,” Ansa sighs to Liisa the next day. If Holappa is going to win Ansa’s affection, he’ll have to do what no Kaurismäki character has done before: sober up.

Like all of Kaurismäki’s films, Fallen Leaves is an aesthetic wonder. Meticulously stylized and tactile, full of vivid colours and playfully anachronistic details, it’s a movie as richly designed as it is warmly romantic. With characteristic rigour, cinematographer Timo Salminen imbues the smoke-laced club interiors, delicate domestic settings, and sprawling industrial nether regions with a textured luminescence that belies the characters’ essentially drab surroundings. That Kaurismäki and Salminen’s 40-year partnership can still yield a seemingly endless variety of gorgeous compositions alongside any number of equally surreal images—such as a slab of raw meat sliding sloppily down a grocery store conveyor belt, or an all-female bar band stoically serenading a diverse cross section of the Helsinki hoi polloi with a buzzing bit of metronomic synth-pop—is testament not only to their undimmed passion and creativity, but also Kaurismäki’s abiding faith in cinema’s rejuvenative energy. 

Indeed, for all its familiar and in some ways summative qualities, Fallen Leaves feels surprisingly fresh, largely due to the inspired casting. Both Pöysti and Vatanen are new to Kaurismäki’s world, and they fold seamlessly into a milieu that has traditionally accommodated few outsiders. Pöysti, in particular, acquits herself nicely in a role that in another era would have gone to Kati Outinen, the director’s longtime lead actress. Vatanen, too, embodies the kind of retro masculinity that’s long been Kaurismäki’s stock in trade, but that in the wrong hands could easily fall into rote characterization: slicked backed hair, leather jacket, Wayfarer shades, and effortlessly cool credos like, “Tough guys don’t sing.”

In keeping with the romantic notion of Fallen Leaves as a late—or, as Kaurismäki has deemed it, “lost”—entry in a beloved series, it’s appropriate that the film it would most resemble is the first in that cycle. Similarly centred on a supermarket clerk and a lowly day labourer (in this case a garbageman), Shadows in Paradise was Kaurismäki’s first openly personal work, applying the postmodern stylings and off-kilter tone of his earlier films to more topical concerns centered on the downtrodden and dispossessed. Fallen Leaves likewise opts for optimism where the trilogy grew increasingly fatalistic (even by Kaurismäki’s standards, the ending of The Match Factory Girl is especially bleak), restoring a bit of light to the project and concluding, like Shadows in Paradise, with a gesture of affection as the characters embark on a new chapter in their lives. 
Like the best Kaurismäki films, Fallen Leaves is invested with an unerring faith in humanity and a singular attentiveness to the beauty of life’s most unassuming moments. In this context, the name of Ansa’s dog, which she rescues from certain death late in the film, is especially poignant: Charlie Chaplin. Indeed, in few filmographies other than Chaplin’s can one find such comparable tragicomic truths. (Calling this movie Modern Times or City Lights would alter none of its integrity.) As Kaurismäki continues to tease retirement, there’s a certain comfort to be had in the knowledge that, even as the work hangs increasingly heavy with the weight of time and outside forces, his vision remains all but untouched. For 81 sublime minutes, Fallen Leaves speaks to that in quietly poetic fashion.