Fallen Leaves (2023) (Kuolleet lehdet)

Fallen Leaves is Aki Kaurismäki’s drily touching film of a kind of love story amid the grinding reality of life.

Love is the Drug

by Alexa Dalby

Fallen Leaves

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Love represents the possibility of transcending – or at least surviving – the grinding reality of life under capitalism in Fallen Leaves, Fallen Leaves is Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki’s fourth addition to his ‘Proletariat’ film series. Proletariat Trilogy – comprising Shadows in Paradise (1986), Ariel (1988) and The Match Factory Girl (1990). – BFI

Kuolleet Lehdet translates as ‘dead leaves’: it is Kaurismäki’s 20th film, and his first in six years.

Over and over, we see the sheer waste that surrounds these characters: expired food, demolished buildings, rusted pipe fittings, scraps of metal. The Helsinki they inhabit is a bleak, gloomy, run-down place, made bearable by humanity and solidarity.

We are introduced first to Ansa (Anna Pöysti) (her name means ‘trap’ in Finnish) and we see her character though two acts of kindness – the third will come later, so no spoilers. Giving away out-of-date food from the supermarket she works in to a homeless man gets her the sack from her zero-hours job. Unexpectedly, her workmates leave too, in sympathy. Although Kaurismäki understates the theme of workers and their treatment or exploitation in a capitalist society, and the love story dominates, it is nonetheless present throughout the film.

Both Ansa and the welder she meets at a joyless karaoke evening (Holappa, Jussi Vartenen) are trapped in lives of unremitting toil but they are not broken by regret or loneliness. They are hard workers but still own nothing: Ansa’s flat, we discover, was left to her by her godmother and she nevertheless worries about paying the electricity bill: Holappa shares a room in a workers’ hostel. Both are in the autumn of their lives.

There’s a general unexpressed despair, a growing sense that there’s got to be more to life than this. People are tight-lipped and stony-faced, but always on the verge of discovering something about themselves. There’s life boiling under the simple surfaces for everyone.

When Ansa and Holappa manage their first date in a cinema, the film they see is the inappropriate zombie comedy directed by Jim Jarmusch, the director’s friend, The Dead Don’t Die – hardly a date movie. Pretentious film buffs come out discussing it in pseudo-intellectual terms but genuine Ansa says she has never laughed so much. Outside the cinema, the couple stand awkwardly in front of telling posters – Brief Encounter, when we don’t know if they will meet again and in another scene Le Cercle Rouge, Fat City, Pierrot le Fou : each is significant to Kaurismäki.

Music is also significant in telling this love story where people of few words communicate with sparse dialogue. The karaoke evening where Ansa and Holappa almost meet has incredibly varied contributions, from rock and classial serenades to Holappa’s colleague Huotari’s solemn bass-baritone (the droll Janne Hyytiäinen) rendition of a traditional folk song. (It goes down well.) Later in the film indie-pop girl duo Maustetytöt sing a wailing guitar-clash of gloom (“I’m a prisoner here forever / Even the graveyard is by fences bound / When my earthly term is finally done / You’ll just dig me deeper into the ground”). Symphonies surround the potential couple.

Finnish film-maker’s sweet-natured odd-couple romance fills you with a feelgood glow and laughs in the face of Putin’s threat to the country – Guardian


Fallen Leaves premiered at the Cannes Film Festival on 22 May 2023, where it won the Jury Prize, screened at the Midnight Sun Film Festival and in Toronto, and is released on 1 December 2023 in the UK. FALLEN LEAVES IS EXCLUSIVELY ON MUBI IN UK AND IRELAND FROM 19 JANUARY 2024.

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