Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismaki has always been influenced by the treatment of the working class. His films often portray struggling workers trying to navigate the hardships of life. Fallen Leaves, his newest film, does the same but with a romantic twist. The end result is a story on finding joy and love within the idiosyncrasies of a hard life.
Set in contemporary Helsinki, Ansa (Alma Poysti) is a lonely working class woman in her early 40s. She works a zero hours contract in a poorly managed supermarket, the boredom of routine slowly dulling her senses. She lives alone in a small flat inherited from a recently deceased grandmother, with the rest of her immediate family all deceased as well. She goes out to social events with friends, but finds herself feeling detached from those around her.
During a karaoke night out, she meets Holappa (Jussi Vatanen), another lonely early 40s worker. She finds herself attracted to him, despite not learning his name, feelings that he seems to reciprocate. However, he too has his struggles, namely with alcoholism, something that Ansa deeply disapproves of. For the sake of a relationship, they both decide to try and make it work, but life and circumstances throw hurdles at them every chance they get.
Fallen Leaves emits a feeling of being trapped throughout its runtime. Ansa and Holappa work dead-end jobs that regularly treat their labour as dispensable. The film even opens with Ansa being fired for taking home food from the supermarket – food that was already out of date and likely would’ve been her meal that night. The sparse use of music and the reliance on long steady shots creates a silence and hollow stillness where nothing but boredom can fill the holes in the characters’ lives. On the radio is nothing but reports of the devastating war in Ukraine, started by Russia, which borders Finland – perhaps a reminder that nowhere is truly peaceful. Even Ansa’s name translates to trapped in Finnish.
The film exudes a quiet sorrowfulness that informs every plot beat and every visual choice. It’s like a mournful Before Sunset in a way. Yet, while bleak in theme and style, there is a surprising tenderness to the character dynamics and the great leading performances. Because this is a picture about the idiosyncrasies that can be found in life during its hardest chapters. When we are at our lowest we are often the most open to the biggest changes, whether that be a new job or letting in someone new into our lives. Kaurismaki is taking the strife of life and finding the optimism within them, creating a story that both invites the audience into its world and feels oddly reassuring despite its melancholic tone.
Much of this is down to the comedic tone of the story. There is a morbidness to the humour of this film, with deadpan responses to serious subject matters, be it the loss of a job or a brush with death. It’s a choice that may not suit everyone’s tastes, but it reinforces how hollow the characters’ lives have become that even life shattering revelations have all the weight of an autumn leaf. However, it also peels back the humanity of Ansa and Holappa, two people who, against all the odds of life, decide to try and make a romance work. In their early 40s, they already know that life isn’t going to slow down, so neither should they with what it is they really want. Anchored by two tremendously subdued performances from Poysti and Vatanen, who manage to convey such vulnerability with only a select few, but well placed, expressive choices, this is a film that celebrates people in spite of life’s unfair, monotonous routines.
It’s a pity that Fallen Leaves is only 80 minutes long. While its story moves at a good pace and unfolds with morbidness and sympathy alike, one can’t help but wish it had been a touch longer, if only to give its resolution a bit of a more powerful punch. As mentioned, its humour may also be somewhat divisive among audiences as it occasionally threatens to undercut the weight of its themes. Yet, for those who can get behind the film’s unique choices, Fallen Leaves proves to be a heartfelt, bittersweet ode to the people who find life heavy and yet still, despite everything, find a way to live it to the fullest.
Director: Aki Kaurismaki
Writer: Aki Kaurismaki
Stars: Alma Poysti, Jussi Vatanen
Country: Finland and Germany
Runtime: 80 minutes