by Rob DiCristino
“Tough guys don’t sing,” protests Holappa (Jussi Vatanen) when pressed to join in on a karaoke night. “Tough guy” might be a stretch — though Holappa certainly presents himself better than his friend Huotari (Janne Hyytiäinen), who hides his advancing age under a moth-bitten sport coat and cheap cologne — but the stone-faced construction worker obviously prefers the solace of his Superman comics to the stuffy basement club where he first encounters Ansa (Alma Pöysti), a supermarket clerk who seems equally ill-suited for a night on the town. “Encounter” isn’t quite right either, now that we think of it. A glance? A look? Polite eye contact across a crowded room? It’s not much of a meet-cute by American rom-com standards, but in the minimalist world of writer/director Aki Kaurismäki, the slightest elevations in heart rate might as well be fireworks. The Finnish auteur’s first feature effort since 2017’s The Other Side of Hope, Fallen Leaves is a delightful tribute to these small victories, a search for light in an otherwise oppressive and unending darkness.Oppenheimer’s Trinity test sequence or anything like that, but it’s a deeply moving and counterintuitively optimistic gesture of faith and goodwill. Even if this date doesn’t amount to a lasting relationship, Ansa is taking an important step toward believing that another human could eventually be worth the effort. Even if the dinner ends poorly — this one, for that matter, does — they’re at least both getting themselves back into the game.
For all the doom and gloom, Fallen Leaves is also darkly, achingly hilarious, as the unlikely lovers are forced to navigate some truly awful twists of fate. It takes one of them losing another soul-crushing service job (and the other losing his favorite watering hole) for them to start earnestly dating in the first place, but what happens when Ansa finally feels comfortable handing over her number? Holappa immediately loses the piece of paper. They somehow reconnect in time to arrange another date, and what happens when Holappa heads out to meet her? A speeding train puts him in a coma. They don’t even learn each other’s proper names until the film’s final movement — Fallen Leaves, by the way, is only a brisk eighty-one minutes in length — further evidence that each tiny progression they manage is positively Herculean when compared to the slapstick happenstances and forced misunderstandings that make the fresh-faced twenty-somethings across the Netflix Original Content Library question whether or not they’ll get to live happily ever after.