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.

Alma Pöysti and Jussi Vatanen in Fallen Leaves (2023)Alma Pöysti and Jussi Vatanen in Fallen Leaves (2023) © Mubi
Sight and Sound
  • Reviewed from the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. 

More than three decades have passed since Aki Kaurismäki’s so-called Proletariat Trilogy – comprising Shadows in Paradise (1986), Ariel (1988) and The Match Factory Girl (1990) – but not much has changed. In Fallen Leaves, announced ahead of its Cannes premiere as a fourth instalment in the series, the world is still various shades of grey and teal, livened up by the occasional splash of vivid colour: a woman’s bright red blazer, a dumpster of deep blue. Lonely men and women still toil away their days at dreary and precarious working-class jobs. After clocking off, they still go to bars where they drink and smoke and talk to each other in comically clipped sentences. If they talk at all, that is, as most of the time they prefer to stare solemnly ahead, letting their cigarettes smoulder while rock’n’roll plays on the jukebox or someone performs a wholly unlikely karaoke song, like Schubert’s ‘Serenade’.

Even the radios are vintage analogue models, though there’s no mistaking that it’s the present day, because all they seem to broadcast is news of Russian air strikes on Ukraine. If that’s the only thing new, perhaps Kaurismäki’s characteristic nostalgia isn’t unfounded. In any case, it also has its narrative advantages: when Ansa (Alma Pöysti) gives Holappa (Jussi Vatanen) her phone number, had she typed it into his mobile instead of writing it down on a piece of paper, the wind couldn’t have blown it away. And then the film couldn’t have indulged in a charming sequence of old-school romanticism, showing the forlorn Holappa return evening after evening to the cinema where they watched The Dead Don’t Die (2019) – the clips of the zombie comedy make for a droll contrast in style that doubles as a homage to Kaurismäki’s friend and fellow nostalgist Jim Jarmusch – in the hopes of running into her again.

In the cinema lobby hangs a large poster of Robert Bresson’s L’Argent (1983) and after watching The Dead Don’t Die, someone exclaims, “It reminded me of Diary of a Country Priest (1951)!” Absurd comparison notwithstanding, Kaurismäki is an avowed disciple of Bresson and shares with him a capacity to imbue gestures with tremendous emotional power. When Holappa first meets Ansa, who has just lost two jobs in as many days, his every small act of kindness, whether it’s buying her a cinnamon roll or inviting her to see a movie, is profoundly moving. Her kiss on his cheek before parting registers like a triumphant affirmation of hope and it’s tragic when he then loses her phone number right away. But Fallen Leaves doesn’t share the grim fatalism of The Match Factory Girl and, after Holappa spends several evenings littering the pavement in front of the cinema with anxiety-ridden cigarette butts, Ansa does finally walk past.

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

As in all of Kaurismäki’s Proletariat films, love represents the characters’ sole possibility of transcending – or at least surviving – the grinding reality of life under capitalism. Ansa and Holappa both recognise their salvation in the other and although their relationship is sweeter and more immediately loving than those of their predecessors, it’s imperilled by Holappa’s drinking habit. He is the kind of alcoholic who hides bottles of booze at work, despite operating heavy machinery, and sneaks swigs from a hip flask whenever others turn their back. “I drink too much because I’m depressed, and I’m depressed because I drink too much,” he tells a friend. When he refuses to get on the wagon for Ansa, who already lost her father and her brother to alcohol, she leaves him. It will take a few more tragedies before he calls her to say that he is “as sober as a desert rat” and ask if she’ll take him back.

At the Berlinale in 2017, when Kaurismäki premiered The Other Side of Hope, he claimed it would be his last film. Of course, directors ranging from Steven Soderbergh to Tsai Ming-liang have announced their retirements only to go back on their word in an even shorter time span. In the case of Soderbergh and Tsai, however, their return was motivated by a desire to venture into new territory, be it thematically or stylistically. The same can’t be said for Fallen Leaves. As pleasurable as it is to revisit Kaurismäki’s distinctive vision of the world and the troubled humans who inhabit it – and at 81 minutes, the film is certainly short and sweet – one is left with the feeling of having seen it all before.  

Other things to explore

Festivals

A Different Man: a discomfiting but darkly hilarious story of a man with two faces

By Jessica Kiang

A Different Man: a discomfiting but darkly hilarious story of a man with two faces
Festivals

Janet Planet: Annie Baker’s warm, understated portrayal of a mother-daughter relationship

By Lou Thomas

Janet Planet: Annie Baker’s warm, understated portrayal of a mother-daughter relationship
reviews

Four Daughters: the facts and fictions of a Tunisian family’s history blur in this fascinating hybrid documentary

By Jonathan Romney

Four Daughters: the facts and fictions of a Tunisian family’s history blur in this fascinating hybrid documentary