It is easy to blink and miss any references to the 21st century in Aki Kaurismäki’s latest film Fallen Leaves. The Finnish auteur has a way of warping your sense of place and time, and therefore realising the timelessness of the basic tenets of humanity. A simple story about a romance between two people, Fallen Leaves serves as a vehicle for Kaurismäki to not only honour his fellow filmmakers, but also his own past.
After a long work day, Ansa (Alma Pöysti) visits a local karaoke bar in Helsinki with her friends. There, she happens to meet Holappa (Jussi Vatanen), whom she later runs into outside her job and they go out for a coffee date. Their hope for a gentle romance is shattered soon after, as several misunderstandings, bad communication, and their hesitations stop it from being a smooth sailing ride.
It won’t be a great spoiler to give away the ending of the film, where Ansa and Holappa do manage to overcome these obstacles for each other. Because, in Kaurismäki’s script, the thrill of the romance comes from the quiet, often tedious internal struggle Ansa and Holappa undergo to be with each other. Set entirely in Helsinki, Fallen Leaves gives very little away in the way of telling the audience exactly when Ansa and Holappa are falling in love. They dress classically and work in jobs that have existed for decades now. When Ansa sits down to listen to the radio in her sparsely decorated flat, it blares out the latest reports from the war-torn frontlines of Ukraine. Besides this and a background prop here and there, one would not be able to gauge the timeline of this film, which ultimately reinforces its theme of timelessness.
Kaurismäki has himself called Fallen Leaves an addition to a series of films he did in the 80s and 90s, that comprise Shadows in Paradise (1986), Ariel (1988), and The Match Factory Girl (1990). With this knowledge, it is impossible to ignore Kaurismäki’s intentions of erasing any material, superficial differences between the protagonists that existed back then, and the ones that exist now. For Kaurismäki, human suffering, the avoidance of vulnerability, and the longing for love but the hesitation to follow up on it, are all universal and cut deep the same way across time.
Fallen Leaves (Finnish)
Director: Aki Kaurismäki
Cast: Alma Pöysti, Jussi Vatanen, Janne Hyytiäinen, Nuppu Koivu and more
Runtime: 81 minutes
Storyline: Ansa and Holappa meet by chance at a karaoke bar in Helsinki. As they pursue their relationship, they encounter several obstacles they must overcome to be with each other
Ansa and Holappa themselves appear suspended in time, unable to find the motivation to break out of their cages. While Ansa remains stuck in her loneliness, Holappa struggles with alcoholism.
Kaurismäki’s script also derives its strength in defining these characters away from and beyond their professional lives. Fallen Leaves is the fourth in the series of films that has been called Kaurismäki’s ‘Proletariat’ series. Both Ansa and Holappa belong to the working class, but the script does not restrict their personalities, their likes and dislikes, and their lives to their jobs. However, it also does not dilute the hardships of their living conditions. Ansa struggles to make ends meet and is booted out when she is caught taking home expired food from her supermarket job, while Holappa’s alcoholism makes him unfit for jobs involving use of heavy machinery.
The script instead opens up a deeper world of their hesitations in approaching these relationships. Ansa, whose brother and father are revealed to have died of alcoholism, refuses to continue their relationship if Holappa continues down the same path. Meanwhile, Holappa thinks of himself as a “tough guy” and refuses to let up.
Fallen Leaves ends up dealing with some heightened emotions. However, with its measured visual language, the pace of the writing, and combined with a succinct runtime of just under 90 minutes, the film comes through as a gentle but deep reminder of the kindness we should allow to ourselves and to those around us.
Fallen Leaves is available for streaming on Mubi