Review | Fallen Leaves | 2023

Ansa (Alma Pöysti) is an overnight stocker at a small grocery store. Holappa (Jussi Vatanen) is an alcoholic factory worker. After both of them lose their jobs, Ansa takes a job washing dishes at a local bar, where she meets Holappa - and the two begin a tentative romance. But his alcoholism threatens to derail that train before it even leaves the station, as Anna's tragic history with alcoholism forces her to draw a line in the sand for both their sakes. 

Therein lies the simple conflict of legendary Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki's new film, Fallen Leaves, a delicately balanced tale of two disaffected loners finding love in an unlikely place. Kaurismäki's incredibly droll sense of humor is on full display here - characters spend a lot of time standing around and staring off into middle space, but that sense of cultural disaffection is what makes the film so indelible. Radio broadcasts constantly deliver updates of the war in Ukraine. The world around them seems cold, distant, unforgiving, making the warmth of their brief encounter all the more palpable.

Kaurismäki's love of classic cinema is also highlighted here. Ansa and Holappa's first date ends with them standing in front of a poster for David Lean's Brief Encounter; soon after, Holappa accidentally loses her phone number. Holappa discusses his alcoholism with a friend in front of a poster of Luchino Visconti's Rocco and His Brothers. The denouement directly and indirectly references Chaplin's City Lights. Even the title seems to recall Alice Guy-Blaché's 1912 one-reel melodrama, Falling Leaves. That love of great cinema exudes from every frame, its seemingly simple and straightforward tale of overcoming personal obstacles for unlikely love revealing greater and greater pleasures upon further reflection, its unassuming wonders coming into greater focus with time. I've found myself returning it to again and again in the days since I first watched it, turning it over in my head like an autumnal snow globe, each recollection bringing back both fond memories and new discoveries in Kaurismäki's carefully constructed world.

Watching Fallen Leaves truly feels like being in the hands of a master, a keen observer of human behavior whose wry sense of humor comes from a great sense of love for his characters. There's a certain sadness at play here too - a world weariness that gives way to a heartwarming sense of optimism and hope even amidst the dreary state of an increasingly uncertain world. Kaurismäki has crafted something truly special here, a small scale wonder whose impact feels much greater than the sum of its parts. 

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

FALLEN LEAVES | Directed by Aki Kaurismäki | Stars Alma Pöysti, Jussi Vatanen, Janne Hyytiäinen, Nuppu Koivu | Not Rated | In Finnish w/English subtitles | Now playing in select theaters.


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