The winner of this year’s Jury Prize at Cannes (the festival’s ostensible bronze medal) Dead leaves (either Fallen leaves) is a sweet and strange love story by Finnish master Aki Kaurismäki. As witty and dry as his previous works, though perhaps more uplifting, the 81-minute Helsinki romance paints a portrait of loneliness that is as captivating as it is ironic.
Centering on a pair of working-class lovers whose lives and circumstances keep getting in the way, it feels like an update of some of the early films that put Kaurismäki on the map. With a pair of wry performances at its center, it also eschews the usual language of cinematic romance, creating emotional elevations through stillness, silence and subtle contrast, rather than overt formal flourishes.
If linguists ever coined an antonym for the movie musical, they would find the poster for Fallen leaves next to him in the dictionary. And yet, it’s still one of the most surprisingly magnetic love stories you’re likely to experience this year.
What is Fallen leaves about?
The film may have a familiar destination, but it involves a wildly different journey than most traditional romantic comedies and ends more lush than its predecessors. Blatantly advertised as the lost “fourth film” of Kaurismäki’s Proletariat Trilogy, after shadows in paradise (1986), ariel (1988), and The girl at the match factory (1990), introduces us to a protagonist remarkably similar to that of the first: a lonely supermarket employee named Ansa (Alma Pöysti).
Ansa is a name that can mean so much”virtue” as well as “caught.” The latter is a feeling Kaurismäki creates even before his first frames appear, when all we hear are the repetitive “beeps” of food being scanned: the most mundane musical score. Equally mundane is the sound of the construction that introduces us to Holappa (Jussi Vatanen), an alcoholic day laborer who does not find much enthusiasm for his work and seems to live for the weekend.
On a night out with their respective friends, surrounded by atrocious but deeply engaged karaoke, Ansa and Holappa briefly cross paths, although it isn’t until their third chance encounter that they decide to have a brief coffee date. This narrative delay gives the film the sense that fate could be working in mysterious ways, behind the scenes. However, the universe equally pushes them in the opposite direction. After the screening of Jim Jarmusch’s zombie movie The dead don’t die (an appropriately deadpan coda for Fallen leaves), not only do the duo fail to exchange names, but Holappa loses Ansa’s number as soon as she gives it to him. Is this subconscious self-sabotage or just bad luck? Who will say it?
Aki Kaurismäki creates a bold aesthetic tapestry.
Throughout Fallen leavesKaurismäki gently carves visual poetry into uneven surfaces, as if romance were something that existed apart from the humble disappointments of daily life, even if it were only a hair’s breadth away.
Halfway through the film, the characters watch a musical performance (with the same deadpan expression as the rest of the film) of “Born in pain and dressed in disappointment.” by a strange Finnish pop duo called Maustetytöt, which means “Spice Girls.” The upbeat melody is complemented by hilariously depressing lyrics (subtitled “I was born in pain and dressed in disappointment / I’m imprisoned here forever”) that, Like the Jarmusch spectrum, it’s another suitable Rosetta stone, but this play of tonal opposites is more complex than it seems.
It is quite easy to represent misery through a lack of color; Look no further than Tom Ford. A single man, in which each level is effectively modulated to set the mood, but Kaurismäki’s approach is not so straightforward. Shot primarily on 35mm film (with some digital touches) by cinematographer Timo Salminen, the film’s commitment to late ’80s and early ’90s realism extends to its palette, which stands out with bright hues. but it intertwines with the characters’ lives in intriguing ways.
Holappa, for example, hides his flashiest shirts under dark jackets, as if to hide any semblance of warmth he might radiate, even by accident. Ansa, for her part, sports a bright red top when she is out and about, but it is indistinguishable from her red uniform at the supermarket, as well as from the fabric of her red sofa, with which she practically blends in. . All of her worlds, moods, and states of being seem to intertwine.
By keeping romance just out of reach, Kaurismäki magnifies the moments when the characters finally allow love (or rather, the mere possibility of no longer being alone) to seep into the corners of the frame. For the most part, this depends on your precise lead performances.
The dry performances in Fallen leaves reveal signs of euphoria.
There’s a joke everywhere Fallen leaves – more funny than laugh-out-loud funny – in which every time someone turns on the radio, the only tune blaring is the news that Russia invaded Ukraine (the film was shot in August 2022). Despite this specificity, the film’s setting is not typical of any particular period, and the characters do not appear to have cell phones. However, the constant presence of heartbreaking news floating around in the background can also be a source of social media information that they eventually become desensitized to.
It is fitting, unfortunately, that the film’s US release on November 17 marks six weeks since the recent surge in news from Israel and Gaza, a constant stream of horror that, for many Westerners, has become a harsh stream of deadly white news. noise, increasing the helplessness that people might already feel under the aprons of unbridled capitalist systems. Finland, despite its social safety nets, it’s based on its free market, and it is is not alien to labor exploitation, which affects both protagonists as the film progresses. These circumstances create a perfect storm of despondency, which Pöysti and Vatanen wear on their sleeves in every scene.
Like Holappa, whose name neither we nor Ansa ever know; he always feels incomplete: Vatanen’s attention always seems drawn elsewhere, to some other time, place, or activity. When Holappa works hard, he prefers to be in his room. When he converses with his elderly bunkmate, Huotari (played with wonderfully restrained anxiety about his appearance by Janne Hyytiäinen), he’d rather be drinking. When he goes out drinking, he can’t seem to find what makes him happy, but Ansa’s sudden presence in his life offers him a new sense of calm, of centeredness.
Similarly, the way Pöysti wanders the world as Ansa feels particularly purposeless, whether navigating her employers’ draconian rules about taking home expired goods or dealing with the strange glances of the store’s burly security guard. . Nothing seems to dent her façade, not as a matter of resilience, but of depressed resignation. That is, until Holappa enters the picture.
He’s tall and mysterious, but in a dirty way; He would be a “bad boy” if he weren’t so lackadaisical and his attention so scattered. Ansa, for her part, has an angelic quality that Pöysti does her best to hide. She emerges suddenly and unexpectedly during the couple’s withheld exchanges, every time she cracks a smile. She glows with thoughts of the future and possibilities. He commits for once, focuses on her and only her. Their eyes meet for a brief moment as they escape their respective problems, and the result is movie magic.
The universe continues to throw obstacles at them, each one more confusing and discouraging than the last. But as the film progresses, the sheer possibility that their lives could be better together feels golden and tangible, making every absurd obstacle worth attempting, despite its inevitable stumbles. Few films so sardonic have given way to such enthusiastic euphoria, the kind that reminds you that life is still worth living, in all its sadness and strangeness.