FALLEN LEAVES (2023, Finland)
Greetings again from the darkness. Finland is often listed as the country having the happiest people, and this latest from writer-director Aki Kaurismaki (Oscar nominated THE MAN WITHOUT A PAST, 2002) arrives to make sure we never again believe this. It’s not that the film is oppressively sad, but it does focus on loneliness … especially that of the two main characters.
These two leads are Alma Poysti as Ansa and Jussi Vatanen as Holappa. The timeline of their relationship goes something like this: They notice each other on karaoke night at the local tavern, but they don’t speak to each other. They cross paths at a bus stop, again not speaking. When they finally do meet, they go for coffee and a movie (Jim Jarmusch’s zombie flick, THE DEAD DON’T DIE). He then loses her phone number. They almost meet a couple of times outside the cinema (where a Bardot poster is displayed), but just miss each other. When they do meet again, they part ways over a ‘deal-breaker’. She adopts a stray dog she initially names “dog”. When they meet again, they don’t speak.
Some may call this progression dry, but with filmmaker Kaurismaki at the helm, a better description is wry. Ansa expertly sports a forlorn look most of the time. The only exception is when she flashes subtle signs of hopefulness when she looks at Holappa. On the other hand, he spends most every day and evening guzzling from a glass, a bottle, or a flask … a habit that costs him various jobs. His circular reasoning is explained as: “I’m depressed because I drink and I drink because I’m depressed.” Adding to the tone are reports of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine every time Ansa clicks on her kitchen radio.
Ansa has a friend named Tanya (Alina Tomnikov) and Holappa has a buddy named Huotari (Janne Hyytiainen). He is attracted to her and she admires his singing voice, yet deems him too old to date. These two characters could have been expanded, but Kaurismaki is so efficient at storytelling that the film barely lasts 80 minutes. Static shots and wordless exchanges fill much of the time, each scene with a definitive purpose that we fully understand. Personally, I’ve rarely been so filled with hope as watching Ansa purchase a single plate and corresponding utensils.
The film is spartan and quiet, yet the deadpan characters feel real and fully developed despite minimal dialogue. There is certainly a message about alcoholism and how outside forces can have such an impact, and yet the film seizes on Ansa’s hope for a better day. Kaurismaki’s film won a Jury Prize at Cannes, and is Finland’s submission for Best International Feature Film. For those who thrive on intimate cinema, it’s a gem … and for those who doubt that “happiest country” label for Finland, you now have your supporting documentation.
Opened in NYC and Los Angeles on November 22, 2023, other cities to follow