Fallen Leaves

  • 03 Feb - 09 Feb, 2024
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Reviews

Essentially remaking his breakout 1986 film Shadows in Paradise, the Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismäki revisits familiar themes in Fallen Leaves, one of the finest festival hits of last year. The dialogue is economical, the lighting evocative and the mood sullen, as two lonely 40-somethings cross paths in a Helsinki that feels at once contemporary and achingly old-fashioned.
It’s a world of trams and traumas, transistors and transient jobs; a world where constant updates about the ongoing war in Ukraine can be gathered not via the internet, but on nightly radio broadcasts. Played by Alma Pöysti, Ansa works at a supermarket that expressly forbids her from pocketing expired food, even if it’s to sneakily feed a homeless man who rummages in their trash. In one of the film’s earliest scenes, she gets fired for attempting to steal a sandwich destined for the dustbin.
At the local watering hole one evening after work, Ansa runs into Holappa (Jussi Vatanen), an equally miserable alcoholic who works at a construction site. Holappa is trapped in an endless circle of indignities – he is depressed because he drinks, and he drinks because he is depressed. Unsurprisingly, he’s had just as much trouble holding down a job as he has had sustaining a romantic relationship. But fuelled by liquid courage and nothing to lose, he asks Ansa out on a date to, where else, the movies.
At just 80 minutes long, Fallen Leaves is difficult to categorise, especially into something as arbitrary as genre. Some might find it hilarious, but the humour is drier than the throat of a schoolchild summoned to the principal’s office. Others might find it unbearably melancholic, or even hopelessly romantic. It would be quite difficult, however, to be unaffected by its discreet charms.
Ansa and Holappa are clearly attracted to each other, but their attempts to secure something as basic as happiness and companionship are constantly thwarted by life’s casual cruelties. When Holappa loses Ansa’s number, for instance, not once do you wonder why he can’t simply source it online. Instead, a matter of this magnitude can only be addressed by showing up every evening at the movie theatre they went to on their first date, and hoping that Ansa has the same idea. She does.
Fallen Leaves is filled with moments of such unabashed romance – it is, after all, a steely picture with a syrupy centre – that it is entirely possible for you to be momentarily overwhelmed. The movie empathises with Ansa and Holappa for the sorry hand that they’ve been dealt, but crucially, it never feels sorry for them. A fan of Hollywood melodramas — the filmmaker has long been perfecting a famously retro aesthetic — Kaurismäki can’t help but allow moments of sweeping emotion to flood the barren lives of his characters. In that way, he’s a lot like Wes Anderson — incapable of turning a blind eye to human suffering, but too sensitive to stare at it directly.
A scene in which Ansa and Holappa sleep separately in solitude – her on her single bed, him on a park bench – is heartbreaking. As is the film’s most memorable moment: a single shot of Ansa binning a dinner plate that she’d purchased mere hours earlier. It’s impossible to decide what’s sadder, that she hadn’t been able to afford extra crockery, or her resignation to the fact that she probably doesn’t need it. For a movie that relies so much on the faces of its actors, it’s interesting to observe Kaurismäki’s reluctance to close in on Ansa’s face at this moment. It’s almost as if he wants to respect her privacy as she deals with this defeat.
And when he can’t, they can always turn to chain-smoking and a chart-busting soundtrack. Kaurismäki isn’t interested in why or how Ansa and Holappa got here, but he’s certainly going to do everything in his power to help them stage an escape.