Early in Aki Kaurismäki’s slender but enormously satisfying Fallen Leaves (Kuolleet Lehdet), the male protagonist is invited by his buddy to go to Friday night karaoke. “Tough guys don’t sing,” he replies, in the signature affectless deadpan shared by all the Finnish master’s characters. But that tough guy turns out to be yearning for love, refusing to give up when a lost phone number and a series of other obstacles keep him from a woman he barely knows. In a sense the tough guy is also Kaurismäki himself, inhabiting a world defined by dourness and melancholy but always seeking pathways to comfort, hope and light.
The director had spoken of retirement after his beautiful Syrian refugee tale The Other Side of Hope in 2017, and this return after six years is waggishly described as a work previously believed to be lost. It’s an expansion of Kaurismäki’s Proletariat Trilogy, poignant stories of working-class outcasts made between 1986 and 1990 and comprised of Shadows in Paradise, Ariel and The Match Factory Girl.
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The director is in a playfully reflective mood about his own work here, while also tipping his hat to the films and filmmakers who inspired him. There are lovely nods to Bresson, Godard, Ozu, Visconti, Chaplin and John Huston among others, as well as a very funny homage to the American director most influenced by Kaurismäki, Jim Jarmusch.
The tough guy who doesn’t sing is Holappa (Jussi Vatanen), a middle-aged alcoholic working temporary construction jobs in Helsinki. “I’m depressed because I drink and I drink because I’m depressed,” he tells his friend Huotari (Janne Hyytiäinen). The latter fancies himself as a bit of a ladies’ man. While he attempts to parlay his vocal confidence on the karaoke stage into a date with acerbic Liisa (Nuppu Koivi), her quiet friend Ansa (Alma Pöysti) and Holappa exchange glances of mutual interest. But they don’t actually meet.
Ansa and Liisa work low-paying jobs at a supermarket, but when Ansa gives away expired food items to a presumably homeless man and bags a sandwich for herself instead of throwing the goods in the trash as required, she is summarily fired. She soon secures another job as a kitchen hand at the fancifully named California Pub, but that proves short-lived when her gruff boss (Martti Suosalo) is arrested for drug-dealing.
Ansa first sees vodka-soaked Holappa again passed out at a bus stop and being fleeced by young hoods. She’s unable to rouse him, but they meet a third time and he takes her to a movie. (The cinephile jokes in that scene are priceless.) Both are eager — or as eager as any glum-looking Kaurismäki character can get — to go on another date, but Holappa immediately loses Ansa’s phone number, setting a gentle farce in motion.
She stares at the phone, waiting for it to ring, and he hangs around outside the movie house hoping to see her again. But they keep missing one another, like “Autumn Leaves” in the breeze, to borrow the title of the Johnny Mercer hit heard in Finnish over the end credits.
Eventually, they do reconnect and Ansa invites him to dinner at her apartment. The extent of her solitude is clear in the fact that she has to buy a second place setting for that occasion. But an evening that starts out romantically, with flowers and sparkling wine if minimal conversation, turns sour when Ansa tells Holappa that her father drank himself to death and she won’t be in a relationship with an alcoholic.
The delicate stop-start rhythm of these lonely people’s uncertain courtship is established via fluid editing and a vintage song selection sprinkled throughout. When it seems that they weren’t meant to be, Kaurismäki introduces an element that has been a sublime motif in so many of his films — a humble mutt. The dog has been hanging around the factory where Ansa now works; she takes her home and cares for her, seemingly finding a companion to help fill the void.
But hope is never completely extinguished in a Kaurismäki film, and Holappa finds the resolve to try again, only to hit what seems a final wall in a closing stretch full of surprises both sad and sweet.
As always, the director has a knack for choosing faces that belong inarguably in his world, their expressionless features revealing almost nothing and yet somehow we see a full range of their humanity.
His leads here are especially ideal fits. Lanky Vatanen lopes around with an air of weathered detachment that makes his emotional hunger all the more poignant. Likewise, Pöysti’s Ansa, who seems resigned to yet another disappointment but keeps an open heart. When a smile spreads across her blank face for the first time, it’s magic. Hyytiäinen, a veteran of Kaurismäki’s films going back more than 20 years to The Man Without a Past, is consistently amusing as Houtari, with his disconcertingly direct observations and his blithely awkward approach to romance; and Koivu’s Liisa is a jaded delight.
Kaurismäki’s longtime DP, Timo Salminen, again shows his exceptional eye for composition, with frame after still frame yielding eye-catching details and frequent jolts of glorious color amid the dinginess.
The homes, cafes and workplaces in Ville Grönroos’ production design look like they’ve remained unchanged for 50 years or more, and the time might pass for the 1960s if not for the intermittent radio news reports heard about the Ukraine War. The name alone of the California Pub is hilarious when we get inside the grim joint full of joyless men sitting over pints of beer in a fog of cigarette smoke. The one spot of color in the room is an old jukebox (incongruously playing a Finnish cover of “Mambo Italiano”), which, along with the blasts of retro-rock and electro-pop, seems a nod back to Leningrad Cowboys Go America.
Running just 81 minutes, Fallen Leaves is slight compared to many of Kaurismäki’s more complex narratives, but its well of feeling creeps up on you and it delivers a good share of laugh-out-loud lines with droll aplomb. Besides, who are we to quibble about any gift from one of world cinema’s greatest treasures?
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