Aki Kaurismäki’s first film since 2017 continues with his trademark mix of deadpan humour and social realism in a clear-eyed take on class politics, mobility, and never succumbing to hopelessness. FALLEN LEAVES has even been described by the director as the fourth entry to his ‘Proletariat trilogy’ after SHADOWS IN PARADISE (1986), ARIEL (1988), and THE MATCH FACTORY GIRL (1990). Interestingly, considering this chronology and place in Kaurismäki’s oeuvre, this latest film’s sense of time and place is off-kilter and stuck in limbo, creating a world of comforting nostalgia and uncanny instability.
The calendar says 2024, the radio broadcasts narrate events from the early 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the radio and telephone technology seems transported from the mid-20th century. The film’s central lost souls, Ansa (Alma Pöysti) and Holappa (v), first lock eyes at a karaoke night where a guest is pouring heart and soul into his rendition of Franz Schubert’s lied ‘Serenade’, written in 1826. And the film they see together on their first ‘date’ is one from a sometimes Kaurismäki collaborator – but the less said about this left-field choice, the better the surprise.
Against this quasi-alternate vision of Helsinki, Ansa holds together her life by stocking shelves in a supermarket, sorting recycled plastic, and later picking up shifts in a bar. Holappa tries to keep his alcoholism under control as a construction worker. Both listen to the news of wholesale destruction while dealing largely solitarily with the hard hands life has dealt. On this point, the juxtaposition of their relationships with their respective colleagues is one of the film’s most astute portraits of class solidarity – and the effect of its absence. Throughout, their interactions with the world are delivered in signature Kaurismäki deadpan, and this, combined with the director’s long affiliation with and sympathy for leftist causes, keeps the film from veering anywhere close to poverty tourism. Even its washed-out palette by cinematographer Timo Salminen suggests a neutral view of the world in its bad, good, and beautiful.
Of course, after their fateful first encounter, it makes narrative sense that Ansa and Holappa would and will gravitate towards one another. But this is no rom-com over well-trodden ground, and their magnetism is countered by circumstances within and without their control. Living on the margins of society means that the act of choosing love – finding a partner to share your life, bills, hopes and dreams – is a brave and daunting one. FALLEN LEAVES won the 2023 Cannes Jury Prize, and one finds an even more special modern drama in its refutation of sentimentality.