Fallen Leaves star Alma Pöysti on working with Aki Kaurismäki: “Everyone was surprised he made this movie”

Finnish actor Alma Pöysti shares her experiences from the set of cinephile love story Fallen Leaves, the fourth film in Kaurismäki’s Proletariat series.

12 October 2023

By Leigh Singer

Alma Pöysti and Jussi Vatanen in Fallen Leaves (2023) © Mubi
Sight and Sound

One of the great recent joys in world cinema, was the news that legendary Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki had reversed his 2017 decision to retire from feature filmmaking. Fallen Leaves, which premiered to great warmth, acclaim and the Jury Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, follows Jussi Vatanen’s Holappa and Alma Pöysti’s Ansa, two lost, middle-aged souls struggling to keep work and find love in Helsinki. For Pöysti, a much-admired stage and screen actress (she recently played Moomins creator Tove Jansson in the 2020 biopic Tove), it was a first, and unexpected, chance to work with a national treasure. 

Given Aki Kaurismäki’s supposed retirement, what was your reaction when he approached you to be in a new film? And what had he meant to you previously?

He’s been around my whole childhood, I think no one in Finland can escape – fortunately! I’ve enjoyed [his films] my whole life. They came on television when I was younger and then I think the first time I went to the movies to see one was The Man Without A Past (2002). And I loved it so much, I think the humour is absolutely brilliant.

And obviously, it’s a huge honour to be in one of his movies. I didn’t know I could even dream about it because he had done his last movie. He’s also a man with a very strong integrity, I mean, he doesn’t lead a public life or anything. And he’s also had his team always. Then one day, I got a phone call saying that he’d like to meet and it was a lunch and my co-star Jussi [Vatanen] was there. And then Aki presented this idea of a script, or a film, and asked if we wanted to join. But just to meet him was really incredible. And I still am pinching myself that we actually made the movie, and were on this journey with them.

You’re an experienced stage actor, used to learning lots of lines. What was your reaction to receiving such a minimalist script as Fallen Leaves?

I never saw a script like this, actually. The words are very well chosen, they are few, but it’s almost like poetry. I was very touched by the story and it was so funny, It was also realising that it’s all there, the clues to the character – I just need to know how to read the script as precisely as I can. So that was sort of wonderful, because I realised there is nothing I have to add or compensate for because it’s so balanced.

How about the process of shooting an Aki Kaurismäki film, is it also so precise and minimal?

Well, he wishes to only do one take. There’s no rehearsal, there is the one and only take, if we don’t mess it up, then we take two. So that was kind of terrifying at first, but then you start to love it, and really get a kick from it, when it starts to work. He’s been making movies for 40 years now, so he really knows what he’s doing. And then everybody’s working towards this one unknown, the moment that something is happening. And that becomes so precious. So, there is not a motivation problem!

This may be a naive question, but is anyone ever able to challenge the process? Because as an actor, sometimes you must feel, “I’m just warming up”, or would like to try it a different way. Is that simply not an option?

I guess you have to kind of let go of that. And trust that if he wants to go again, then we go again. If he’s happy with it, then it’s the way it was supposed to be because he’s so exact that you can really trust his taste or that he got what he wanted from the shot. But then, he’s the master of making Aki Kaurismäki movies! You see it’s obviously it’s worked before, so, then I have to maybe let go of my anxieties. For me, it was just trying to strip down as many layers as I can. Somehow to stay as pure and honest as I can. Or you dare to be. And to let the camera in on that.

Alma Pöysti as Ansa in Fallen Leaves (2023)
Alma Pöysti as Ansa in Fallen Leaves (2023)
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival 2023

Yet you have several scenes with a dog – even with trained animals, is that also possible in one take?

She’s actually Aki’s own dog, a stray from Portugal, also called Alma! She had never worked with the camera before and she’s a natural talent. We spent a lot of time getting to know each other, playing around and eating sausage together. She was of course making independent choices in those shots, but they were perfect. She’s a storyteller.

Given all of that, when you came out of making the film, how did you in your head process that as an acting experience?

This has been such a gift and such a learning journey. It’s been very purifying, also, to learn how little you can do to tell a lot. And when you have this very strict, minimalistic frame, you can’t go wide in that expression. But the movement goes somewhere else. So maybe it goes deeper.

One of the film’s central ideas is how movies and a love of movies plays a role in these characters’ lives and relationship. For example, you both watch the Jim Jarmusch movie The Dead Don’t Die (2019) – did that manifest in how Aki wanted you to approach the part?

It’s a constant flow of references from Aki’s mouth! He’s talking about movies, literature, music all the time. And not only the old ones, also contemporary things, he’s very much aware of what’s going on. I think it’s like him having a conversation with his old movies, or his film heroes, putting them in there and giving a wink to Godard or Brief Encounter and obviously the huge love for Chaplin. And I guess him and Jim Jarmusch, they’ve been winking at each other for years.

It’s interesting in that, in some movies that reference other movies, it can feel like a superficial gimmick. But here it feels like it comes from a deeper place.

It really does, it’s in him. And it’s not snobbish, it’s not excluding anyone because sometimes when you see movies and they’re just referencing, you feel left out. But here, it just feels like because he’s such a film lover. And you know, the list of things I need to see in my life has really expanded during this! You can call it inspiration.

I suppose no one expected this film to exist, but do you get the sense that making it has reinvigorated Aki Kaurismäki’s passion for filmmaking? Might we get another one now?

Let’s see. I mean, I think everyone was surprised he made this movie, including himself. He was very inspired, and really in a good mood shooting this. And he’s been talking about perhaps doing another film… I just hope that that will happen. It was quite funny. He talks about how this script came about. He was about to write a whole other movie. And then his fingers just starting to write this and he wrote it in a very short time. And he was like, “Okay, apparently, I wrote the fourth part of the [Proletariat] trilogy. And it seems to be romantic comedy. Who would have thought so?” So, yeah, who knows where his fingers will go!

 ► Fallen Leaves is part of the Special Presentations programme at the 2023 London Film Festival; it is scheduled for UK release on 1 December. 

Fallen Leaves: Kaurismäki returns with a bittersweet cinephile romance

Love represents the possibility of transcending – or at least surviving – the grinding reality of life under capitalism in Fallen Leaves, Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki’s fourth addition to his ‘Proletariat’ film series.

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Fallen Leaves: Kaurismäki returns with a bittersweet cinephile romance

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