Finnish master of droll Aki Kaurismäki offers Cannes one of the best films of this year's competition.
For his fourth chapter to his ‘working class trilogy’ (Shadows in Paradise, Ariel, The Match Factory Girl), Finnish deadpan maestro Aki Kaurismäki has delivered what could be the gloomy-yet-warmest romantic comedy of 2023.
Fallen Leaves sees two strangers cross eyes in a Helsinki karaoke bar. Ansa (Alma Pöysti) works in a supermarket, while Holappa (Jussi Vatanen) works in as a metalworker in a scrap yard. Nothing happens that night, but happenstance brings them together once more. Both eventually get fired from their poorly paid jobs; her for taking an expired sandwich, him for his tendency of taking a swig on the job. Still, they go on a first date.
After mostly silent coffee drinking and a screening of Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die (which leads two of their fellow cinemagoers to insightfully review the film afterwards, comparing it to Goddard’s Bande à Part and Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest – a cinephile gag which predictably had the Cannes audience in stitches), she leaves him her number on a ripped notepad page.
Disaster strikes when the wind blows the piece of paper away. It won't be the first event which conspires to keep the two would-be lovers apart – not least an asparagus salad that confirms the dreaded equation of ‘asparagus + screen = impending doom’ and leads to the exchange: “I like you a lot, but I won’t take a drunk.” / “And I won’t take orders.”
The basic narrative of two lost souls forging a strange and beautiful bond ticks a lot of generic Hollywood boxes, but this Kaurismäki we’re talking about. He fashions a working-class romance which develops as a joyful farce with all the unmistakable Kaurismäki hallmarks: silent detachment, wryly funny remarks, several sly tributes to his filmmaking heroes – here Ozu and Bresson in particular – and those shadow-bathed and heightened colour schemed portraits that decry from the director’s continued partnership with cinematographer Timo Salminen.
One element throughout our last-chancers’ constantly delayed romance can be initially perplexing: the constant reminder of radio reports about the war in Ukraine. Quite they’re doing there is a mystery at first, but as the film progresses, it feels like Kaurismäki reminding us in his peculiar way that connections are precious. The broken state of the world can lead to needing a drink (or six), and exterior factors have a way of hindering all-too-rare moments, like a spark that ties you to someone without being able to explain why you’d do anything for them. Fallen Leaves, like Alexandre Koberidze’s What Do We See When We Look At The Sky? before it, is our reminder that surrendering to chance encounters and embracing love without having one foot out of the door is the one sane thing to do when world around you crumbles.
By the time the poetic closing shot arrives, this ode to love is capped off with another cinematic zinger, which had an entire auditorium clapping even before the screen turned to black and the credits started rolling. Rare are these moments, and Kurismäki has not only delivered one of the best films of this year’s Competition strand, but proven that morosity and romance can happily share a bed.
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