Another two lost souls attempt to find love in Aki Kaurismäki’s Helsinki-set Competition drama

Fallen Leaves

Source: Cannes International Film Festival

‘Fallen Leaves’

Dir. Aki Kaurismäki. Finland/Germany. 2023. 81mins

Don’t expect radical novelty from Fallen Leaves: the latest from the eternally doleful Aki Kaurismäki is altogether business as usual. For years, Kaurismäki’s films have offered a series of tender, meticulously crafted variations on a similar theme and, while this one isn’t perhaps quite prime vintage, anyone who loves his paradoxically joyous melancholia – cinema that is, let’s say, happy on the inside – will take this one to heart. While Fallen Leaves, which won the Jury prize at Cannes, may not inspire a new surge of fans, international prospects are solid as ever for a film-maker with one of the most faithful followings in the auteur world.

Guaranteed to cast a warm glow

Kaurismäki has announced this as a hitherto-lost fourth chapter to his early ‘working class trilogy’ (Shadows in Paradise, Ariel, The Match Factory Girl). In fact, thematically and stylistically it has just as much in common with anything he has made since 1996’s Drifting Clouds – and as the similar title might suggest, his new hard-times love story is very much of a piece with that film. It’s about two lonely Helsinki people who notice each other one night, exchanging shy glances in a karaoke club, then meet by chance and cautiously click, only to endure the storms of fate and socio-economic trouble.

Ansa (Alma Pöysti) is a supermarket worker who is fired after being caught taking home food past its sell-by date that is otherwise destined for the dustbin. Metalworker Holappa (Jussi Vatanen) also loses his job – and his bed in a workers’ hostel – after being caught tippling on the job. He’s depressed because he drinks and drinks because he’s depressed, as he tells similarly laconic co-worker (and would-be baritone singing star) Huotari, played by Janne Hyytiäinen from Kaurismäki’s Lights in the Dusk).

Ansa and Holappa meet after she loses her next job, at a run-down drinking den, and they decide to go to a film together – The Dead Don’t Die, by Kaurismäki’s long-time kindred spirit Jim Jarmusch. She writes down her phone number, but not her name – and Holappa promptly loses the piece of paper. The way the couple are framed on the way out of the cinema, against a poster for Brief Encounter, should perhaps warn us that the course of love won’t run smooth here; but then, despite his and his characters’ signature glumness, Kaurismäki has always been something of an optimist, especially where love is concerned.

At heart, Kaurismäki’s films have always been a bit like dramatised country and western songs – resilient working-class folk perennially stiffed by The Man and yearning for love, while shedding the odd tear into their beer (or vodka). But, in his last few films, Kaurismäki has also tended to signal the seriousness of his social and political conscience, with a running string here of radio broadcasts about the war in Ukraine.

Fallen Leaves is a beautifully acted film. Tersely amused tenderness flickering over her usually still features, Alma Pöysti (best known as the lead of Zaida Bergroth’s Tove) steps with poise into the shoes of former Kaurismäki female lead Kati Outinen, coming across as a full-blown romantic heroine despite the drably unflattering raincoat she wears through much of the film. Prominent Finnish TV and cinema regular Jussi Vatanen is similarly fine as the shy working guy, and has a terrific deadpan buddy act with Hyytiäinen, with their immaculately slow-burn exchanges of one-liners: “Tough guys don’t sing.” Pause. “You’re not a tough guy.”

The director’s characteristic heightened colour schemes and composed play with shadows and light give Fallen Leaves – shot as ever by Timo Salminen – that distinctive look of a fictional world sealed in on itself, yet carrying recognisable elements of the real Helsinki. The soundtrack is perhaps Kaurismäki’s most diverse to date, with a bizarrely eclectic karaoke session featuring hard rock, stately Finnish tango and a Schubert serenade.

Fallen leaves do indeed appear, in a lovely autumnal montage, but no less liberally scattered are the vintage movie posters seen throughout, with Kaurismäki as ever paying tribute to the great names – Ozu, Bresson and Chaplin only being the most obvious. Kaurismäki fans will note a fleeting cameo by long-term regular Sakari Kuosmanen and can be assured that sooner or later, the latest of a long line of lugubriously lovable screen dogs will get a look in. Fallen Leaves may not set the film world on fire, but is guaranteed to cast a warm glow.

Production companies: Sputnik Oy, Bufo

International sales: The Match Factory

Producers: Aki Kaurismäki, Misha Jaari, Mark Lwoff, Reinhard Brundig

Screenplay: Aki Kaurismäki

Cinematography: Timo Salminen

Editor: Samu Heikkila

Production design: Ville Grönoos

Main cast: Alma Pöysti, Jussi Vatanen, Janne Hyytiäinen, Nuppu Koivu