Tuesday, December 5, 2023


 by Rob DiCristino

Aki Kaurismäki’s understated romance is one of the year’s best films.

“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.
And make no mistake, Fallen Leaves is dark. Set sometime near the beginning of the 2022 Russia/Ukraine conflict — but notably absent of smartphones, laptops, or other period-appropriate technological signifiers — the film introduces Ansa and Holappa as wage slaves sleepwalking through a menial existence. Just minutes in, Ansa is fired from her supermarket job for boosting expired food (“That belongs in the waste bin,” her gangly fuckwad of a manager insists) and trudges home to a series of burnt TV dinners. Holappa has his drink, at least, stashing pints at home, work, and every haunt in between. It eventually costs him his job — he blows a breathalyzer after causing an accident on the site — but he couldn’t seem less bothered by the development. It’s to be expected, Kaurismäki seems to say. Life is merely pain. Hell, he and Ansa don’t even strike up a real conversation until their third or fourth meeting, agreeing to go see Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die. “I’ve never laughed so much,” says Ansa afterward. Yikes. Are their lives really that bleak?
Kaurismäki’s signature stillness and spartan presentation may accentuate this decay, but it also reveals an unlikely vibrancy of spirit between the two. There’s a longing to even their most awkward interactions — not even a sexual or romantic longing, per se, but more so a longing for hope. For wonder. Proof, perhaps, that this world has more to offer than zero-hour contracts and permanent hangovers. In one of the film’s (and, for that matter, the year’s) most disarming sequences, Ansa prepares for their dinner date by buying a second plate and silverware set. A second plate! Sure, it may not seem like nerve-splitting drama on par with 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.
With all that said, it’s possible that Fallen Leaves will feel too slight for romantic comedy fans seeking true innovation, or possibly too cold and aloof for those used to the rhythms of those aforementioned mainstream blockbusters (what passes for the film’s soundtrack amounts to karaoke renditions of Schubert serenades and the occasional radio news report of violence on the Ukraine border). But this year’s Cannes Jury Prize winner is less interested in the melody than it is in the notes underneath, the occasional breaks from what can often feel like a life full of unrelenting despair. “I have the time but not the money,” Ansa tells Holappa when he first asks her out for coffee, directly acknowledging the almost farcical working class hellscape Kaurismäki has dropped these characters into (Ansa adopts a stray dog just to save it from being carelessly killed by the industrial machinery around her). Viewers with the right kind of eyes will be able to read the poetry in that melancholy, to feel the complex lyricism humming under those long stretches of complete silence.


  1. I've always wanted to dive into Aki Kaurismaki's filmography, and this gives me a perfect excuse! Thanks for covering this one!

  2. I really loved Fallen Leaves, probably my favorite Kaurismäki film (of the ones I've seen, I'm not a completionist).

    The constant reminders of Russia's war on Ukraine really got to me, it's (obviously) inescapably on everyone's mind here at the moment and has been for almost two years (Finland's not in any way part of the conflict but we're close enough for it to hit differently than conflicts in the Middle East of Africa).

    There's a 2024 calendar on the wall of the bar's backroom, which I took to mean Kaurismäki expects the Ukraine war to still be raging on a year from now. Pretty bleak and depressing, if likely.

    1. I did read about the 2024 calendar after I filed this review. Thanks for catching that! It’s definitely a grim prospect.