Finnish master of droll Aki Kaurismäki offered this year’s Cannes Film Festival one of its best Competition films. ‘Fallen Leaves’ won the third-place Jury Prize, has just been selected as Finland's 2024 Oscar entry for Best International Film, and is now out in select European cinemas.
For his first film in six years and the 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 warmest gloomy romantic comedy of 2023.
Fallen Leaves sees two lonely blue-collar people 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 home an expired sandwich, him for his tendency of taking a swig on the job. Still, stumble towards 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), 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 despite the odds ticks a lot of generic Hollywood boxes. However, this Kaurismäki we’re talking about – Finland’s master of tragicomic melancholia.
He fashions a working-class romance which develops as a joyful farce with all the unmistakable Kaurismäkian hallmarks: silent detachment reflecting deep emotions characters can’t express; wryly funny remarks and witty gags; several sly tributes to his filmmaking heroes – here Ozu and Bresson in particular; and those precisely composed, shadow-bathed and heightened colour schemed portraits that decry from the director’s continued partnership with cinematographer Timo Salminen.
Not much new here for fans of the director, but it’s still an absolute joy to experience.
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 only sane thing to do when world around you crumbles.
By the time the poetic closing shot arrives, this timeless 81-minute ode to love is capped off with another cinephile zinger, one which proves once and for all that morosity and romance can be happy bedfellows.
Welcome to Finnish feelgood. It’s strangely addictive.
Fallen Leaves premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. It is out in French, German, and Finnish cinemas now. The film will screen at next month’s New York Film Festival and BFI London Film Festival, before getting a release in the UK, Ireland, Netherlands, Norway and Spain in December.