Fallen Leaves (Kuolleet lehdet) at the BFI London Film Festival 2023
Some 35 years ago, Finnish writer/director Aki Kaurismäki made the so-called underdog (or workers’) trilogy. Though otherwise unrelated to each other, his Shadows In Paradise (1986), Ariel (1988) and The Match Factory Girl (1990) all featured downtrodden protagonists struggling to find solidarity, love or revenge in an unjust world, and all unfolded in a drily absurdist style where characters would deadpan their way through often momentous events and genre elements which, though certainly, crucially there to propel the narrative, were utterly downplayed (and typically kept off screen) as just the latest in an endless series of oppressive circumstance. Now, many decades on, his Fallen Leaves (Kuolleet lehdet) takes a similar approach to similar themes, with his signature droll understatement. Indeed, this is a ‘Kaurismäki film’ through and through, almost to the point of self-parody – like Aki’s Greatest Hits, with only the intervening years to mark both how little and how much Finland’s finest filmmaker has changed in the meantime.
Holappa (Jussi Vatanen) and Ansa (Alma Pöysti) first notice each other at a karaoke night to which Holappa has been reluctantly dragged by his friend Huotari (Janne Hyytiäinen, now emphatically older than he was in Kaurismäki’s Lights in the Dusk, 2006) – and this proletarian pair will then cross paths again on several occasions. Yet while both are lonely, and clearly fancy each other, their romance will repeatedly be thwarted, as destiny, and Holappa’s personal demons, keep conspiring to keep these working-class would-be lovers apart.
Much as Ansa, whenever she hears news reports of more Russian airstrikes against Ukrainian civilians, switches her radio to familiar old songs, both she and Holappa have learnt to tune out the noise of their oppressors, the drudgery of their various low-pay, zero-contract jobs, and the unfairness of the various bosses who mistreat or fire them, and to find their passing pleasures in little things: music, movies, cake, canine company, and maybe marriage. Holappa also seeks solace in alcohol and cigarettes, both of which he knows will be the death of him – but is he willing to quit for the love of a good woman?
While Kaurismäki has often looked back to the clothes, stylings and rockabilly music of the 1950s, here we see characters whose old transistor radios, leather jackets, quiffed hair and middle age date them in a contemporary world of mobile phones, laptops and even a digital jukebox. The film’s very title suggests characters in their autumn years, desperate for a little warmth and comfort to ward off, however temporarily, the approaching chill. When Holappa and Ansa go on a date to the local cinema, and see The Dead Don’t Die (2019), the underrated zom com from Kaurismäki’s friend Jim Jarmusch, two patrons are overhead discussing the film that they have just seen, with one comparing it to Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951), and the other just as absurdly likening it to Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande à Parte (1964).
In a way that is exactly what Kaurismäki is also doing in Fallen Leaves. For as he has Ansa and Hoppala play out their new (but timeless) dramas in front of old movie posters, he locates a certain classicism in modern Helsinki, and Chaplin-esque comedy in the troubles and tribulations of these hangdog underdogs (who end up adopting a real dog, as stray and neglected as themselves). This very mismatch of sensibilities, in characters who seem overlooked, left behind, and out of synch with their own age, is key to the film’s considerable charm. Here nostalgia itself expresses an impossible, escapist yearning for better times and higher ideals – yet while the path to love may prove rocky, without such obstacles and impediments, hurdles and hindrances, could there even be romance?
strap: Aki Kaurismäki’s proletarian romance has two ageing underdogs deadpanning their way through modernity’s oppressions
© Anton Bitel