Alma Pöysti and Jussi Vatanen in "Fallen Leaves"
The backdrop of Aki Kaurismäki’s tragic romantic comedy “Fallen Leaves” has the makings of a devastating drama. Set in present day Helsinki, Finland, the film tells the story of a sweet romance clouded by a sense of impending dread. Talk of the war in Ukraine fills radio news broadcasts on a daily basis. The film’s protagonist Ansa (Alma Pöysti) listens on in frustration before switching to a more hopeful station, one where wistful love songs crackle through the static. Ansa’s loneliness is as palpable as the setting; the city is painted as a sleepy and almost deserted place. Characters often find themselves at the local karaoke bar or cinema in search of diversion, as though desperately holding onto bits of joy. Writer and director Kaurismäki adopts the same perspective in his storytelling. Amidst a depressing environment of lost souls looking for companionship, he brings levity through sharp dialogue and an amusingly deadpan tone. Every bit funny as it is sad, “Fallen Leaves” finds glimmers of humor and hope in moments of tragedy.
The story begins at a sad-looking supermarket where Ansa stocks shelves on a zero-hour contract. She is eyed intensely by a security officer, who then reports her to a superior for stealing expired food (which would have gone to waste otherwise). Ansa lives a simple, single life. When she’s not standing up against her company’s egregious food waste during scarce times, she spends her days at home listening to the radio, or at the karaoke bar watching life go by. The local bar becomes the setting of a meet-cute as Ansa comes across Holappa (Jussi Vatanen), a lonely trades worker addicted to alcohol. They immediately gravitate towards each other, united by an underlying desire for togetherness and meaningful human interaction. The time that Ansa and Holappa spend together, initially delayed by him losing her phone number and not knowing her name, stresses not only the loneliness within themselves but also the growing necessity of their presence in each other’s lives.
Depressing as the story of “Fallen Leaves” can be, the film is a consistently funny and light watch, thanks to Kaurismäki’s poker-faced sense of humor and the equally deadpan performances that compliment his vision. Ansa and Holappa are conveyed in an incredibly ubiquitous way; while the screenplay is specific to their everyday lives, there is something universal about these two characters and their yearning to feel something beyond the confines of mundanity. This universality captures well-rounded characters who can be everything all at once, amusing one moment and miserable the next. In the hands of Kaurismäki, the inscrutable tone of “Fallen Leaves” still manages to be expressive and not alienating. Pöysti and Vatanen each find their way through the characters’ stifled emotions and, in that journey, unveil a resonating wistfulness to them. From Ansa’s depleted facial expressions to Vatanen’s intense blank stares, powerful emotion radiates from the characters. The actors’ chemistry suggests their characters have a mutual understanding of the other’s qualities, almost like an unspoken language that only they can draw from each other.
In addition to the performances, the charm of “Fallen Leaves” rests in Kaurismäki’s witty screenplay. The dialogue is brisk and straightforward. Kaurismäki takes a literal approach to the storytelling, which gives the film a down-to-earth quality, especially when it comes to the central romance. Romantic comedies can often exist in a heightened version of reality, where everything seems a little easier and the world feels a little more magical. This of course is part of the charm. “Fallen Leaves” is a pared down rom-com that finds its unique charm in the simplicity and harshness of life. The romance feels naturalistic, and unfolds truthfully with the characters’ personalities as their quiet relationship deepens. Watching Ansa and especially Holappa tame their interior battles to show up for each other on an emotional and physical level gives the film a special staying power. The film’s strength of establishing character extends to the supporting cast as well, particularly Holappa’s drinking buddy Huotari (played by a wonderfully stoic Janne Hyytiäinen). The actor’s presence alone, not to mention his comically recurring one-liners, is a vivid depiction of forlornness mixed with wry self-deprecation.
A neat way in which Ansa and Holappa bond is through their appreciation of cinema. The local movie theater becomes a comforting antidote to their cynical world. One of their date nights is a screening of Jim Jarmusch’s “The Dead Don’t Die,” which they both express a liking to. The impact of Jarmusch’s absurdist film extends beyond the two protagonists. It finds its way into a brief conversation shared between two background characters, chatting amongst themselves about how the film reminded them of Jean-Luc Godard’s work. The scene is a fleeting but memorable moment that speaks to how Kaurismäki infuses cinematic influences in a subtle way, whether through pieces of dialogue or through locations. For instance, the local movie theater is used as the setting where Ansa gives Holappa her phone number, and he loses it mere minutes later. There is something incredibly cinematic about him returning to the scene of the romantic crime in the hopes of running into her again. The film works at its best in such moments of quiet, where the camera sits with the characters as they yearn and wonder. The simplicity of Holappa standing by the theater is reminiscent of classic romances that linger in moments of waiting, which can be just as romantic.
It may come as a surprise that “Fallen Leaves,” beyond its poignancy and melodrama, is one of the funniest and most optimistic films of the year. The deadpan humor gives weight to the common saying, “If you don’t laugh, you’ll cry.” Kaurismäki adopts this mentality brilliantly, presenting characters in the most unassuming way possible, and then pushing beyond their individual hurdles to reach moments of levity and idealism. While the screenplay becomes too literal for its own good at times, undercutting some of the film’s plot points particularly in the final act, overall it works as a singular expression of Kaurismäki’s distinctive voice in cinema. Bittersweet and endearing, “Fallen Leaves” satisfies in the way a good rom-com does.