For those unfamiliar with Aki Kaurismaki’s work, Fallen Leaves serves as an excellent entry point into the Finnish director’s visually minimalistic and politically charged world. While it is unlikely that Kaurismaki will ever receive an award from the Helsinki Tourist Board, Fallen Leaves justifiably won the Jury Prize at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival and it feels weird to say that, because the film doesn’t tell any extraordinary story, instead it’s a narrative so common it hurts in forgotten places carried within forgettable characters and therein lies its genius.
At its core, the film is a love story. Two lonely working-class individuals (Alma Pöysti and Jussi Vatanen), both affected by the unpredictability of capitalism and the loneliness of missing out on youthful experiences, find a connection. What happens if you don’t meet someone significant and get married, have children, buy the white picket fence? According to this story, alcoholism, precarious employment, isolation, and aging assets that keep one teetering on the edge of destitution happens. The European class system receives some potent criticism from Kaurismaki, but he cleverly masks it with deadpan humour. He clearly got the memo from George Bernard Shaw, who said “If you want to tell people the truth, you’d better make them laugh or they’ll kill you”.
Love proves to be a magical energy that quietly infiltrates this movie, even as your attention is captivated by the ambiguity of the time period: 1960 movie posters featuring Norman Mailer and Bridget Bardot can be seen in the background scenery, meanwhile clothing is 1980s grunge and mobile phones are early 2000 Motorola’s. Together these details brilliantly symbolise the emotional baggage we carry by age forty. Even the title Fallen Leaves, gestures to being past ones prime, but if we dig deeper fallen leaves keep the soil warm, they hold moisture and prevent weeds, forming a compost to enrich the soil and feed the tree, and this is a good analogy to represents the poignant afterthoughts of the film. The triangular theory of love: intimacy, passion and commitment all unfold in small yet sanguine ways that makes ordinary people’s lives more bearable. Four stars, a great arthouse film for the thinking couple’s date night.
Fallen Leaves opens on February 14th, and there is a special opening Valentine’s Night screening at Palace Nova, Eastend and Prospect. Click below for details and to book tickets.
Reviewed by Jo Schofield