Aki Kaurismäki’s take on romance sees two loners meet and fall in love in Helsinki. But what does a Finnish film fan make of it?
I’m going to preface this review by saying I’m a Finn. Born and raised near Helsinki, I should be elated that a film like Fallen Leaves is getting international attention and distribution. Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismäki’s latest movie premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where he is a regular, and is arriving in UK cinemas this December.
Yet, throughout Kaurismäki’s 81-minute film, all I could think about was, “Is this really how we’re still presenting my country to the world?”
Is this how people see us, see me?
At the centre of Fallen Leaves are Holappa (Jussi Vatanen) and Ansa (Alma Pöysti). Holappa works gig jobs, where he often swigs from a hidden bottle of booze, while Ansa gets fired from her job at a supermarket after giving away food to the hungry and taking an expired sandwich home for herself. Holappa and Ansa meet and, slowly but surely, fall for each other.
There’s an appealing timelessness to Fallen Leaves. We know it takes place in the present day because Ansa’s old-fashioned radio blasts constant news of the Ukraine-Russia war. Finland shares a large border with Russia so the threat of war seems to be ever looming – but as with most things in Fallen Leaves, it’s a threat that is implied but not explicitly explored.
If you’re already on board with Kaurismäki’s signature style and deadpan humour, Fallen Leaves will be a treat. The director’s at his funniest and sweetest here, but newcomers may struggle with the stilted dialogue and seemingly absurd characters.
Now, back to my original point – and my biggest criticism of not just Fallen Leaves, but Kaurismäki’s work in general.
There’s nothing authentic about the way the characters talk or even act, and Kaurismäki’s work often requires you to read between the lines. Finland is a vibrant, culturally rich country, but that never shows in Kaurismäki’s films. There are shades of romance to be found in Fallen Leaves, but it requires a bit of effort to find it. Both characters are nearly crushed by their loneliness; Ansa is often found sitting alone at her small kitchen table. She later finds companionship in a dog someone has abandoned. But at 81 minutes, the film is frustratingly fleeting.
In the film’s funniest scene, the couple go to the cinema on their first date. They’re watching Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die, and while I hate to explain too much here, the joke is that Kaurismäki has often been compared to Jarmusch. Fallen Leaves might be Kaurismäki at his most self-aware, but it doesn’t always quite translate.
The film also uses another trope which has always been present in Finnish films: alcohol. Holappa drinks excessively, and in a surprisingly empowering moment, Ansa says she won’t stand for it. It’s her or the bottle. It’s here that the film is at its most authentic and organic. Sure, Kaurismäki isn’t exactly Ken Loach when it comes to exploring the working class, but there’s a universal truth to be found in Fallen Leaves.
If you’re a fan of the Finn’s previous works, Fallen Leaves will work just fine. For everyone else, it will feel as though you’re not in on the joke. As a Finn, I think it’s time to move on from Kaurismäki’s version of Finland and champion newer voices in a rich cinematic landscape.
Fallen Leaves is playing at the BFI London Film Festival and is in UK cinemas 1 December.
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