Another gorgeous tragicomic farce from Finnish maestro Aki Kaurismäki, a heartfelt cinephile ode to the possibility of love among the working classes.
When you see guys with droopy jaws, immaculate greased side-partings, slightly ill-fitting leather jackets, and a flask of unidentified hooch in the breast pocket, there’s only one place you could be: the wonderful world of Aki Kaurismäki. The Finnish legend returns, his deadpan instincts enhanced more than undimmed, with a(nother) sweeping, Hollywood-inspired romance set among the disenchanted and the destitute, where the possibility of love becomes the only respite from an arduous day sweeping metal filings from the factory floor.
Ansa (Alma Pöyst) is a diligent supermarket worker who is fired for daring to take home items of spoiled food – Kaurismäki’s first of many micro-critiques of a morally corrupt employer class who treat workers like dirt on their heel. Holappa (Jussi Vatanen) is an affable alcoholic who holds down a job in a scrap yard, and is let go not for the many bottles of liquor he has hidden around the workspace, but when he’s injured as the result of faulty tools.
At an extremely eclectic karaoke night in the local bar, these sad-eyed lost souls form a sudden, ineffable bond and a winding, often wild journey towards salvation begins. Ansa is deeply lonely, yet uncomplaining when it comes to the chronic toil of her life. Holappa just can’t stop drinking, and knows he has to face up to various demons if he’s to win over this pure-hearted damsel.
While that may all read like it’s a little earnest and generic, the tonal and stylistic reality couldn’t be further from the truth, as in this case (as with all the director’s work to date) the tale is all in the telling. The Kaurismäki/Timo Salminen director-cinematographer partnership continues to yield gorgeous, dusky, Edward Hopper-esque fruits, with shots bathed in arching shadows, and figures often caught staring longingly off into the middle distance.
Fallen Leaves, with its title that tips its hat towards the great Japanese melodramas of the 1950s by Ozu, Mizoguchi and Naruse, is peppered with classical movie references, some as jokes and others as sincere touchstones. There are numerous direct references to Robert Bresson, one of which might stand as the director’s funniest and most catty gags about cinephile culture ever. Walls are strewn with classic-era movie posters, as if to remind Ansa and Holappa how close they are to these masterworks of escapist romantic fantasy.
All the while, the radio incessantly blares out reports on the conflict in Ukraine, perhaps acting as an extra catalyst for these characters to forge a human connection before all is too late. It’s a wonderful film with not an ounce of fat on the bone, and Kaurismäki still managed to thread the needle between a style of ironic detachment and emotions that are big, bold and instantly affecting. Fallen Leaves also makes the case for Kaurismäki as the all-time master of poetic final shots, and this one sees him announce one of his key sources of inspiration. But you’ll have to watch to find out who.
Published 23 May 2023