Five Cent Cine: Fallen Leaves

Fallen Leaves (“Kuolleet lehdet”)★★★1/2 (out if 4 stars)

When Harry Met Sally in Helsinki

A combination of reserve and clichés makes veteran Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki’s films both entertaining and strange. “Fallen Leaves,” which won this year’s Jury Prize at Cannes, has been called the fourth in his 1986-1990 “Proletariat Trilogy.” The two working-class protagonists toil in mind-numbing jobs under ludicrously bullying bosses. Ansa (Alma Pöysti), first seen tagging out-of-date grocery products, is summarily dismissed for having put a sandwich in her purse rather than in the dumpster. We watch her at her job, where she says not one word, not even to a co-worker who wishes her a good day. Alone in her spare and drab apartment, she listens to the radio describe Russian war crimes in Ukraine—then turns it off.

Ansa’s counterpart, Holappa (Jussi Vatanen), labors at an industrial site in a hazmat suit blowing out used machine parts, until he’s fired for drinking on the job (one of his several firings). The burden of industrialization on the ordinary worker has Chaplinesque qualities, and some of Chaplin’s humor, though of the dry, rather than the manic kind. Ansa’s interiority (she’s dubbed “the quiet one”) is matched by Holappa, who tells his fellow worker and room-mate, when the man tries to initiate conversation, “you’re a gabber.”

Ansa and Holappa improbably encounter each other through glances across a Karaoke bar. Someone sings “Mambo Italiano,” while the patrons barely twitch in time to the music. (Keep an ear tuned to Kaurismäki’s heavy-handed soundtrack.) The two awkwardly initiate what might pass for a relationship, one so tentative that Ansa won’t tell Holappa her name (“next time”). She writes her phone number on a scrap of paper, which falls out of his pocket and we (not Holappa) watch it blow away (cliché).

The plot lines are well-worn standards: will two people indeed form a relationship, and will our “heroes” find fulfilling jobs? Ansa and Holappa address the first question with a minimum of talk, interaction, and emotion. Their reserve, laced with an occasional quip, borders on caricature and stereotype. The second question seems to be of less immediate interest to Kaurismäki; while it’s important to him, here it’s merely background to the—dare we say—love story.

Outside the theater where they have just seen a zombie film, Ansa (Alma Pöysti) and Holappa (Jussi Vatanen) tentatively approach each other. She writes her phone number–not her name–on a piece of paper for him.

In its minimalism, “Fallen Leaves” is an engaging, funny film. With so few words and so little action, the moments of humor that dot Kaurismäki’s script not only invoke a smile or a laugh, but also arrive as a welcome antidote to the constraints of Finnish life. Adding to the film’s appeal are references to popular culture. On their first date, Ansa and Holappa go to the movies to see Jim Jarmusch’s 2019 “The Dead Don’t Die,” a zombie picture that’s a not-so-subtle metaphor of the characters’ existences. Two other patrons exit the theater referencing Goddard and Bresson, a laughable contrast to the film they’ve just seen. At the other end of the spectrum, Holappa and Ansa’s discussion of the movie is terse to a fault: “Did you like it?”/“I did.” Behind them a wall of posters prominently displays David Lean’s 1945 “Brief Encounters,” another obvious citation, since Holappa is about to lose Ansa’s phone number. 

The emotional content of the couple’s relationship at once defies, and is produced by, the reserve and reticence with which Kaurismäki invests the two characters. As they navigate the inhospitable urban environment, there’s pathos in their loneliness and dysfunction. When a dinner-date at Ansa’s ends poorly, she throws away the place setting she had purchased for the occasion. Funny, absurd—and sad. Yet amid what might be understood as quiet desperation, Kaurismäki offers moments of hope and resilience, albeit at times in a dark vein. His signature mise-en-scène, two people on opposite sides of a small table, suggests both apartness and togetherness. And yes, Holappa drinks too much, but, as he notes, “I’m going to die of black lung first.” 

Serious themes are at play—war crimes in Ukraine, the dehumanized industrial world, depression and fatalism, the loneliness of the individual, a damaged community, the solidarity of women. Yet this is no Ken Loach politics-in-your-face, no Italian neo-realism in black and white. Kaurismäki has a foot in social realism, but, as least in this film, he’s not fully invested in exploring the bleakness of daily life that usually underpins the genre. A true auteur, Kaurismäki’s story-telling mode is uniquely his own: a rare mix of humor and pathos; a social “reality” that is ironized and even campy, yet real enough; big ideas within a quotidian, human scale and frame. A spartan, wry, 1 hour and 20-minute film that will continue to play in your mind.    

Date: 2023

Stars: 3.5 (out of 4)

Director: Aki Kaurismäki

Starring: Alma Pöysti, Jussi Vatanen

Countries: Finland, Germany

Language: Finnish, subtitled in English

Runtime: 81 minutes

Other Awards: 6 wins and 21 other nominations (including for Cannes’ Palme d’Or)

Availability: Showing in theaters nationally; purchased by Mubi but not streaming at this time. See JustWatch here for future streaming availability.

Lead image: Holappa’s (Jussi Vatanen) loneliness is palpable.  

See all Five Cent Cine reviews by 2 Film Critics

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