(Check out Chris Reed’s Fallen Leaves movie review. The movie expands in theaters Friday, December 1, 2023 via Mubi, after a limited release that began on November 17. Seen it? Join the conversation with HtN on our Letterboxd Page.)
Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismäki (The Other Side of Hope) is back with a new film, Fallen Leaves, and as is so often the case, a dog plays a crucial role (though not until the third act). What is also familiar to fans of the director is the wry humor and impassive affect of so many of the characters. Underneath it all, however, beats a heart eager for love.
As the title hints, our protagonists have been through a lot, and live without much hope for anything better. She is Ansa (Alma Pöysti, Tove), a supermarket quality-control checker, and he is Holappa (Jussi Vatanen, The Unknown Soldier), a factory worker. They meet one night, sort of, at a karaoke bar. Mostly they just share glances while their friends flirt more directly with each other.
Things soon take a turn for the worse as both Ansa and Holappa lose their respective jobs. She lands more on her feet, as Holappa has the additional burden of his alcoholism. Despite these challenges, the two manage to connect over time, though the script throws many obstacles in the way of a lasting union.
Anyone who has watched a previous Kaurismäki film will find comfort and familiarity in the aesthetics of the piece. Emotions remain mostly unspoken, the characters speaking in near deadpan even as they flit between despair and a kind of joy. To native English speakers, the sound of the Finnish language, as spoken here, lends itself to monotone. I’m sure there are Finns who are as rowdy and passionate as any other ethnic group, but in Kaurismäki’s world they struggle to overcome some kind of national depression.
That’s not to say there isn’t comedy; it’s just of the laconic variety. Take the formula of a traditional rom-com and denude it of the usual celebratory trappings, and you’ll have a sense of the tone. Big things eventually happen, but via baby steps. The constant background chatter and references to movies by filmmakers like Godard and Bresson play in opposition to expectations of a Hollywood ending.
The film is not always successful, however, as Kaurismäki puts a little too much on Ansa to be a nurturing and forgiving woman. Holappa may declare, at one point, “I am depressed because I drink, and I drink because I am depressed,” a sentiment which earns him the sympathy due all addicts, but there is never a similar declaration of intent or motivation for Ansa. I understand his attraction to her—she’s lovely and loving—but not hers to him. All he does is consume alcohol and smoke.
Nevertheless, by the conclusion, the essential sweetness of the tale wins out, and the duo—sorry, trio, courtesy of a new arrival, a dog named Chaplin—walk off (well, hobble, since one of them is on crutches) into a future hopefully brighter than the present. It’s almost sentimental. How perfectly like the perverse Kaurismäki to first subvert the genre and then give into it.
– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)
Mubi; Aki Kaurismäki; Fallen Leaves movie review