Fallen Leaves – movie review

The latest film from Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismaki is Fallen Leaves, a deceptively simple and quirky rom-com about two-star crossed lovers in Helsinki. Two lonely down-on-their-luck, working class people meet at a karaoke bar. But they find the path to making a connection and maybe finding happiness is not smooth sailing.

Holappa (Jussi Vatanen) is an unhappy alcoholic who keeps being fired from industrial jobs because of his drinking habit and attitude. The shy and quietly spoken Ansa (Alma Poysti) works as a checkout clerk in a supermarket but is fired after being caught taking home items off the shelf, even though they are past their use-by date. The pair exchange awkward glances at a karaoke bar and agree to meet for a date at a local repertory movie theatre.

But when she gives him her number he accidentally drops the piece of paper it was written on, and it’s blown away by the wind. He doesn’t know her name which complicates matters. Their efforts to reconnect lead to misunderstandings and missed opportunities. Their romance plays out against the backdrop of a depressingly grey Helsinki.

With Fallen Leaves, Kaurismaki establishes a melancholy and bittersweet tone, but this is about as light and upbeat as Kaurismaki gets. The film contains plenty of pop cultural and film references. They include a discussion of Jim Jarmusch’s zombie comedy The Dead Don’t Die and a film poster for the 1945 movie Brief Encounter, which hints at some of the themes of Kaurismaki’s film – and even some modern music on the soundtrack. And radio news bulletins concerning the war in Ukraine are heard in the background.

But the film is still shaped by Kaurismaki’s signature style and idiosyncratic touches. His typically dry and droll dialogue is delivered in deadpan fashion by a cast attuned to the director’s modus. This is largely a two-hander, with some peripheral characters, including Janne Hyytiainen, who plays Hoppola’s best friend and drinking buddy Hannes. The dialogue is also spaced with lots of awkward silences and glances that communicate much about the characters. The two leads are largely monosyllabic as well.

Ville Gronroos’s production design is minimalist, and the settings are largely simple and drab in style, particularly Ansa’s small apartment. A minimum of action is used here as the characters are either standing or sitting for the most part. Regular cinematographer Timo Salminen shoots in long static takes that deliberately frame the characters against the backdrops. But despite the drabness of their world, the film is also tinged with a sense of warmth for its two main characters and suffused with a touch of optimism.

Fans of the director’s idiosyncratic style will lap up Fallen Leaves. But the film is immediately accessible and should also appeal to those unfamiliar with Kaurismaki and his body of work.

Greg King

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