Finland’s most well known filmmaker is arguably Aki Kaurismäki. The idiosyncratic storyteller is at it again with Fallen Leaves, one of his slighter works, but also one of his gentlest. Despite a downbeat setting and the looming specter of the war in Ukraine, this is an ultimately hopeful love story. Now, it’s done in Kaurismäki’s peculiar manner, but nothing here should prevent it from being a small scale indie success.
Fallen Leaves is about as small as it gets, and while it’s a comedy, the humor is on the very mild side. Mostly, it’s observational, letting us spend time with two people who have all but given up, not just on love, but on a happy life in general. Kaurismäki keeps things relatively dry, but never moribund, which makes a huge difference.
Ansa (Alma Pöysti) and Holappa (Jussi Vatanen) are a pair of lonely souls in Helsinki, going about their lives without much in the way of happiness or purpose. She works in grocery store, going home to her nearly empty apartment with spoiled food she was meant to throw out, sitting in silence while her radio plays news of the war in Ukraine. He works various manual labor jobs, getting fired for drinking on the job. One day, the sad folks meet at a karaoke bar they’ve each attended with co-workers. Could a romance be blooming? Well, not so fast.
Whatever path to happiness they might finally be on is almost immediately met by obstacles. First, he loses her phone number after they go on a date to the movies. There’s a mistaken home address for a dinner date, as well as his alcoholism, which she requires him to deal with. As he retreats, she takes in a stray dog. They remain on each other’s minds, however, meaning that a third act reunion is always looming as a possibility…
The duo of Alma Pöysti and Jussi Vatanen are surprisingly watchable, even if you often want to shake some sense into them. It’s not that they have searing chemistry, but they come out of their shells around each other. Pöysti and Vatanen show subtle differences, though really do keep the characters consistent. Could they only ever appeal to each other? Perhaps, but therein lies some of the added charm on display. The small cast also includes Janne Hyytiäinen, Martti Suosalo, Alina Tomnikov, and more, but it’s largely a two-hander.
Filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki writes and directs here with deep affection for his flawed protagonists. He makes them odd but not too odd. Flawed but not too flawed. Lovable but not overly huggable. It does make for a thin story, but the characters end up more compelling than you might expect. Bonus points to Kaurismäki for the perfect use of a cute dog. It really ties everything in Fallen Leaves together by the end.
Fallen Leaves isn’t going to blow you away, no pun intended, but you’ll most likely feel satisfied by its conclusion. Especially if you like Kaurismäki, it’s a fair bet that this is going to scratch a very specific indie itch. As an introduction to his style, it works as well. Overall, it just works, despite its small stature.