Aki Kaurismäki takes the bare bones of a romance plot and weaves utter movie magic. Fallen Leaves (2023) deserves something from this year’s jury, but which prize exactly? That’s up to them, but if it doesn’t pick up anything at all, expect to hear cries of ‘robbed!’ bellowing from the Croisette, at the closing ceremony and in the press.
In the film, there is a dog named Chaplin. It is the perfect name for the hound who finds a home with lonely spinster, Ansa (Alma Pöysti). For Fallen Leaves is resolutely Chaplinesque in its story of two working-class people meeting and slowly forming a relationship, though one that is not without its challenges – Holappa (played with deadpan rebel brilliance by Jussi Vatanen) is an alcoholic – and there’s even a melodramatic incident towards the end which feels especially ripped from the melodramatic playbook of the Little Tramp. But like the silent era master, Kaurismäki makes it work a treat because you will care deeply for Alma and Holappa, and their bumpy course towards cohabitation.
Fired from her job at a local supermarket for taking home out of date food to eat, Ansa is at a loose end. Middle-aged and without prospects, one night she meets factory worker Holappa, at a karaoke bar. As events conspire to bring them closer, Ansa and Holappa find respite and eventually solace from life’s travails. They meet for coffee, then go to the movies, to see Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die (2019), which Alma confidently describes hilariously as the best film she’s ever seen. It’s all so beautifully ordinary, mundane even, but an important part of the rituals of courtship we all go through. Things go less well when Alma and Holappa share a candle-lit dinner. Ansa tells him straight: she won’t take in a drunk. In a huff, Holappa storms out.
Pöysti and Vatanen are a dream team. Their chemistry makes blossoming love feel so real and true. Their scenes are full of hesitant silences, unspoken feelings, we get a total sense of their personalities, their needs and wants. Are they one another’s salvation?
Aki Kaurismäki’s use of colour is as expertly deployed as his deadpan humour and comic dialogue guaranteed to have you howling with laughter. The predominant reds, yellows, blues, and expressionist lighting of apartment interiors and Helsinki streets at night brings scenes to vivid cinematic life. Like the rest of the film, the sets and use of colour just fit the overall tone perfectly. So too his depiction of two working-class people without a penny to rub together. It presents Alma and Holappa has poor, of course, with the latter on the verge of being down and out, but it doesn’t seek to sentimentalise them (a departure for sure from the overall influence of Charles Chaplin).
Fallen Leaves – a symbolic title denoting two middle-aged people past their prime, in the autumn of their days – is endearing, hilarious, gorgeously crafted, a love letter to cinema in a time of streaming, deceptively simple but as deep as the ocean, and a film that sings to the heart. A joyous viewing experience by a master filmmaker. Does it get any better than that?
Still: Festival de Cannes