30 Nov 23
Alma Pöysti, Jussi Vatanen
Finland's best-known director, Aki Kaurismäki, is often described as deadpan but rarely romantic. Having declared his retirement from cinema, Kaurismäki returns with a winning, tender, moving romcom about two loners finding each other in Helsinki.
Fallen Leaves won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and across- the-board rave reviews ("It fills you with a feelgood glow," said The Guardian). A work filled with zero- degree humour, it is the perfect gateway to the unique worldview of a master filmmaker.
Ansa (Alma Pöysti), a loner who works at a supermarket restocking shelves, meets Holappa (Jussi Vatanen), an alcoholic who works at a construction site, in a karaoke bar, both playing the wingman role for their flirty friends.
They bump into each other again when Ansa has just lost another zero-hours job, and then again, in front of a cinema. This time, they agree to meet on purpose. "We almost got married," Holappa says before he even knows Ansa's name. In Kaurismäki's glazy, timeless cinematic world, this is as wild as it gets.
The monotonous dreariness of their world, which is set in the present day but might as well be taking place in a parallel universe, is interrupted by this meet-cute. Very quickly we're in an old-school romantic comedy, full of small tragedies and missed connections.
Ansa writes down her number for Holappa on a piece of paper, which promptly blows away. Out of desperation or romanticism (or both, you decide), he waits every evening by the cinema, piling up cigarette butts in front of posters of Robert Bresson's L'Argent, until, finally, Ansa walks by again.
Perfectly played by Vatanen, Holappa is the kind of self-deluding drunk who sneaks swigs of hard liquor on the job, keeping himself consistently buzzed, and falls asleep at bus stops. He is comfortable living in denial, while Ansa is quiet but determined, preferring to be alone than put up with the small injustices that others expect her to simply tolerate.
Kaurismäki has called Fallen Leaves the fourth entry in his Proletariat Trilogy, comprising Shadows In Paradise, Ariel and The Match Factory Girl, but it is completely standalone; you don't need prior knowledge to enjoy it.
Fans of his previous work will find Fallen Leaves comforting, full of Kaurismäki's trademark tics and traits, while newcomers will be utterly charmed by a love story with playful cinephile references – Ansa and Holappa's first date is to see Jim Jarmusch's The Dead Don't Die.
If you hadn't guessed already, Fallen Leaves is fuelled by a love of movies of every stripe. Contemporary technology is almost non-existent, which helps to give Fallen Leaves its timeless, almost fairy-tale quality: people use payphones and rotary phones (no mobiles here); internet cafés are still in operation.
Kaurismäki's films exist in a distinctive universe where the banality of work-life-and-repeat is punctuated by striking pops of colour – a yellow shirt, a red sofa – and deeply feeling characters exist restlessly. It's a sombre world but Kaurismäki injects it with slivers of light and hope.
The world around the would-be lovers is a routine of repetitive manual work, crooked bosses and small amusements like karaoke nights and drinking. Ansa and Holappa's love story might be one of minimal words but it's an utter delight to watch their stolen glances and intense longing.
Fallen Leaves may be deadpan but it'll leave you positively giddy. Anna Bogutskaya
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