Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki is one of the most acclaimed filmmakers in the world, particularly for his ability to show the beauty and humanity of the common man. According to many film historians, this idea was best exemplified in his Proletariat trilogy, which ran from 1986–1990. Each of the three films (Shadows in Paradise, Ariel, and The Match Factory Girl) told familiar stories about love, coping, and the noble challenge that is continuing to live, made all the more poignant because it featured characters from the poor and working classes. These weren’t about triumphs of will or elite achievement, just the victory that is simply existing.
Over 30 years later, Kaurismäki returns with an unexpected continuation of the Proletariat series in the form of Fallen Leaves, which has been submitted by his homeland to the Academy to compete for International Feature. Like those previous works, this one also features deeply flawed people finding comfort in one another despite being on the bottom rung of society. In fact, the main critique I’ve heard from other people who are more familiar with Kaurismäki’s body of work than I am, is that this feels like the same movie he’s made for his entire career. That may well be true, but for a neophyte like me (I’ve only seen his most recent entry before this, The Other Side of Hope), this might be more of a feature than a bug. If nothing else, I’m glad he exists in the artistic sphere to keep telling stories like this, because there are so few — at least stateside — who are willing to do so.
The vast majority of Hollywood romances feature two main things: a) incredibly attractive leads, and b) having those leads placed, at worst, in the upper echelons of the middle class. This is because for Americans, love stories are almost universally fantasies, a form of escapism from either loneliness or some less than ideal aspect of their more mundane lives. Kaurismäki, at least in this project (though by reputation I suspect it holds true for the bulk of his filmography), chooses instead to highlight the very people who would seek that escape, because they’re actual people rather than impossible ideals.
Alma Pöysti and Jussi Vatanen star as Ansa and Holappa, two middle-aged singles living in Helsinki. Ansa (which literally translates to “trapped”) works at a grocery store, stocking shelves and throwing out food past its sell-by date. Her wages are so low, however, that she often finds herself pocketing some of the unsellable wares, in hopes that the electricity will be on in her apartment so she can cook it for herself. She is eventually fired for this offense (as well as giving some to the homeless), even though, as she points out, no one is harmed and the store loses no money because by law they can no longer sell it. Her manager (Martti Suosalo) would literally rather the food rot in a bin than have it be consumed by someone who might need it. Meanwhile, Holappa works as an engineer and construction worker, but is also sacked (multiple times) for drinking on the job. In his case, the loss can also mean living on the streets, as he was housed in a workers’ dormitory so that he can be constantly on-call.
The two meet at a karaoke bar one night while out with their respective friends. Holappa’s mate, Huotari (Janne Hyytiäinen) tries to hit on Liisa (Nuppu Koivu), first by wowing her with tall tales and chat-up lines, then by singing an enthusiastic patriotic song (whereas everyone else sings pop hits). Ansa and Holappa scarcely say a word to one another (they don’t even exchange names), but realizing there might be a mutual interest, they seek each other out to spend time together and test the waters. It’s clear there’s an attraction, but as the cruel forces of irony would have it, when Ansa gives Holappa her phone number, he immediately loses it, missing the slip of paper falling out of his pocket and blowing away.
Despite both sides living the most unexciting lives imaginable, there is a genuine sadness at the prospect that such an opportunity might be lost. Ansa waits by her phone for days, sure that he’ll call then cursing him when he doesn’t, and Holappa, lost for any other recourse, goes to the location of their first date every day to wait and see if she emerges. He know she lives close by, so all he can hope for is to cross paths again, and when they do, it’s low-key magic.
There are two very strong points going for this film. First and foremost is the deadpan humor that almost renders this a tragicomedy. There’s a jaded tone to a good chunk of the dialogue, but it never feels truly cynical. It plays more as cheeky self-awareness, as if Kaurismäki is intentionally having his leads play each scene like what an ignorant movie-goer might assume is stereotypical European pretension, while still having them say things that are perfectly normal for a new relationship and showing genuine affection. Hell, the pivotal first date, which encapsulates their personalities perfectly, is to go to a movie theatre to watch The Dead Don’t Die. Not only is Kaurismäki a major influence on Jim Jarmusch (and vice-versa), but the sight of Bill Murray and Adam Driver fighting off a zombie horde while simultaneously discussing existentialism with a pinch of commentary on bureaucratic redundancy fits Ansa and Holappa to a tee.
The second is the fact that Kaurismäki never sacrifices either character’s agency for the sake of a happy ending. When Ansa invites Holappa to her home, it’s a huge deal for her. She tidies up the place, buys actual fresh ingredients, and makes a dinner for them, complete with wine that she really can’t afford. She wants to make a good impression, but she also refuses to settle. Seeing Holappa take swigs from his hip flask, she makes it clear that no matter how much she might like him, she won’t date a drunk. If she truly needs companionship, she has a dog. But for him, if she’s going to make an effort, then he needs to as well, even if it’s just for his long-term health and not for any romantic sake. From Holappa’s point of view, he’s a very high-functioning alcoholic, but even he admits he’s tired of being held back by bad habits and worse decisions. And while he’s content in being alone, he takes real stock of what he wants out of life. This commitment to individuality leads to the darkest joke in the film, but it oddly works.
Now, in fairness, this isn’t some grand experiment in human emotion (or lack thereof), nor is it some sort of awards bait where nearly every element has some prestigious angle to aim for. Honestly, that would defeat the purpose of the story (though that being said, the production design is minimalist gold). This is just a strangely funny representation of the old adage where one damaged person meets another damaged person, they fall into mutual damage, and call it love. And honestly, that’s enough. There will be several International Feature entries this year that will be more worthy of praise, and that I will rank higher than this one. But not for nothing, even though Fallen Leaves is getting its U.S. release this weekend, I saw it at AFI Fest nearly a month ago, covering the festival for my friends at No Rest for the Weekend. Four weeks later, this still sticks with me, whereas other contenders, be they from other festivals or normal releases that occurred much more recently, barely even register anymore. That’s got to count for something, right?
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Have you been able to see any of the foreign submissions so far? What Jim Jarmusch film best sums up your love life? Let me know! And remember, you can follow me on Twitter (fuck “X”) and YouTube for even more content!