Another masterwork from Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki, Fallen Leaves is a bittersweet, complicated, and remarkably succinct romance for our fractured times. Sarcastic, but never cynical and perceptive without passing judgment, Kaurismäki’s tale of two lonely souls coming together and then being kept apart by circumstance finds humour and love in a world that feels like it has been suffering from an unshakeable hangover. It nails the etherial feeling of being “alone, together,” or knowing that someone out there feels the same way they do, even if there’s a distance or impassable barrier between them. It might not seem like the lives of Kaurismäki’s protagonists are filled with joy, but Fallen Leaves finds a lot of hope and promise at the end of life’s dead end streets.
Ansa (Alma Pöysti) and Holappa (Jussi Vatanen) both hold thankless jobs that drain their souls. Ansa works at a big box retailer, and she’s fired for daring to give someone in need a sandwich that was supposed to be thrown out. Holappa works at a scrap metal processing plant, a job so monotonous that he feels comfortable drinking on the job. Their paths cross several times, and one day they decide to properly meet for coffee and go to the movies. They have a nice date, but two problems get in the way of their being together: his rampant alcoholism (a deal breaker for Ansa) and the fact that he has lost her number and doesn’t know where she lives.
Fallen Leaves was once thought to be a lost script from Kaurismäki, and was intended to be part of his working class Proletariat series alongside Shadows in Paradise, Ariel, and The Match Factory Girl. But while it fits perfectly amid Kaurismäki’s previous works, Fallen Leaves has been reformatted to fit more contemporary fears and situations, and to wonderful effect. While his protagonists still get their news from the radio, find entertainment in reading old comics, and still enjoying a night out at the movies instead of staying home, Fallen Leaves has a lot to say about the nature of modern isolation and feeling insignificant in lieu of showcasing a lot of modern technological advances.
News reports filter in about warfare near the Ukrainian border. Signs of economic inequality and corporate greed are visible everywhere. Lower ranking workers are nothing more than caretakers for the old, wealthy, sloppy, uncaring, and lazy. The attitude that “time is money” shows complete contempt and hatred for those currently struggling. Ansa and Holappa see this play out every day, and it’s little wonder that they have begun shutting down emotionally to keep from spiralling further into their shrinking, insular worlds. Everything around them is so loud, obnoxious, and borderline offensive, and yet they remain somewhat calmer in the eyes of each other. They can equally dish out and take barbs, but there are also distinct and clear points where their wavelengths align perfectly.
Fallen Leaves brilliantly taps into a feeling that humanity is sleepwalking into an historic decline, as seen through the eyes of two people who convey a sense of lonely resignation. Kaurismäki has always been a sharp wit – one of the best when it comes to deadpan sarcasm – but Fallen Leaves is never unfeeling or cynical. All of its small joys (including nods to other films and directors that will make cinephiles smile) and moments of restrained triumph and tragedy comes as a result of highly perceptive observations about human nature. There’s always a sense of the chaos unfolding in the world around them, but by focusing intently on Ansa and Holappa, Kaurismäki firmly grounds this gentle story in a sort of quiet solitude and understanding, bolstered by wonderful work from Pöysti and Vatanen.
Something unique about Kaurismäki’s works is that they’re often pessimistic films with big, beating hearts, often revolving around people doing whatever they have to just to get through another day. There’s a socially conscious fire contained with all of them, but it’s delivered with a kind, but never condescending gentility and good humour. Kaurismäki has made some of the best adult fables about friendship, connection, and love, and all of them are able to squeeze a lifetime’s worth of emotion and knowledge into small packages. Fallen Leaves is no exception, and those both familiar and unfamiliar with Kaurismäki’s work will find plenty to equally love.
Fallen Leaves opens at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, ByTowne Cinema in Ottawa, Vancity in Vancouver, Winnipeg Cinematheque in Winnipeg, Sudbury Indie Cinema in Sudbury, Metro Cinema in Edmonton, City Cinema in Charlottetown, Apollo Cinema in Kitchener, Carbon Arc Cinema in Halifax, and The Vic in Victoria on Friday, November 24, 2023. It expands to the Screening Room in Kingston and various cinemas in Montreal on December 1.
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