Dancing between cynicism and hope, the Finnish director’s latest is eighty minutes of pure, unalloyed bliss
Story: Ansa (Alma Pöysti) resides alone in Helsinki working at a supermarket stocking shelves. She meets the habitually inebriated and equally lonely metal worker Holappa (Jussi Vatanen). In spite of several obstacles and miscommunications, they attempt to establish a bond. Traversing the many challenges in their way of happiness ranging from misplaced phone numbers to drunkenness, the couple are ready to fall in love even if it’s a little late in life.
Review: Kaurismaki doesn’t allow excessive defeatist and miserablist tendency to creep up in his films. Though when we first meet Ansa and Holappa, they look crumpled and weathered by the daily banality of life. However, the melancholy is only sprinkled sparingly on the edges of the love story; Kaurismaki’s diligently crisp screenplay refuses to let it colour the larger worldview, serving pervasive reminders of how hope can never be entirely forsaken.
This is a director who has long put ordinary working class lives centre stage in his stories, while consistently expanding the scope of belonging and rights. The worlds he constructs are meticulously rarefied in their projection yet there’s never a trace of shutting them down for those seeking entry. Inclusivity, openness and reposing trust in second chances are fundamental to Kaurismaki’s gentle gaze. As much as the grime and rigour of hard labour is put upfront, the reverence for dignity of work is always accentuated with unmistakably characteristic stylistic streaks.
Working with the director for the first time, Poysti and Vatanen seamlessly slip into and inhabit the hyper-particular rhythms of his world. For avid admirers of Kaurismaki’s decade-spanning work, familiarity hums through each carefully arranged element that adorns his vision. Emotions are deliberately muted, dialogues consciously pared-down and the register steadfastly deadpan. To round it off , the other definitive trademarks-Finnish pubs and dogs-are crucial to the narrative, spurring key turning-point moments in the characters’ lives and realisations as well as providing a refuge where decisions must be made. The colour contrasts are often heightened and eye-popping. Ville Gronnroos’s art direction and Tiina Kaukanen’s costume design spatter the central duo’s decidedly separate worlds in Helsinki with a rich profusion of reds, greens and faded hues. Cinematographer Timo Salminen is as attuned to the startling bursts of colour as he is to the smallest of shifts on the faces of the actors. Visual and verbal eccentricities swirl together headily, steeping the drabness of reality in distinctive stabs of wry humour.
The drollness atypical to the director’s tonal vein is as dry as it gets. One of the most mischievously hilarious scenes arrives when two old men discuss, after watching Jarmusch’s 2019 zombie comedy, The Dead Don’t Die, whose films it reminded them of. Both toss the unlikeliest names in the context-one brings up Bresson, the other Godard.
The banter between Holappa and Huotari (a singularly crackling Janne Hyytianinen, reminding us why he is a Kaurismaki regular), his colleague and friend, is also a delight to watch. The friends couldn’t be more different from one another. The sullen-faced Holappa categorically states he wishes to be alone while the older Huotari is a restless flirt, needling him to go out and try his luck with romance at the karaoke bar. Huotari is assertive in his ways, a tad too confident of his singing skills (lending many a jest) whereas Holappa is resigned unto himself. The latter’s shyness almost makes him a natural fit to be with Ansa. The two are beleaguered souls drifting by without a foothold on relationships forged outside work. There are a slew of pointed comments the director makes in unflashy fashion about the workplace ecosystem, industrial or otherwise. Fallen Leaves sharply acknowledges the precarity embedded in working class life but also doesn’t miss a beat in gesturing to tightly enmeshed networks of solidarity and sisterhood that can defy impositions. Little, generous nuggets of friends showing up for one another in the moment of crisis accrue a subtle political charge in the film, especially as everything around them seems built to decimate their spirit. Emanating from the radio, news about the daily carnage in Ukraine is a firm background presence. Along with this droning on about the brutality life is capable of, there are the loveliest strains of music almost as a countering force, in what could be the year’s most underrated playlist. As much as classical musicians (ranging from Schubert to Tchaikovsky) give the characters solid company in their wistful lyrics, it is one of the songs by the Finnish pop duo Maustetytot which jolts Holappa into his profound reckoning with himself. With the tiniest of passing flickers of expression and his eyes lighting up, Vatanen beautifully captures the thunderbolt of Holappa’s realisation.
While we don’t get to know anything about Holappa’s past (his name too is kept under wraps, Holappa being his surname), Ansa lets us into a quick, brief family history, mentioning how it was shattered by alcoholism, which is why she is cautious to pursue a relationship with him once she discovers the extent of his drinking. Pöysti, who snagged a surprise Golden Globe nomination for her performance, imbues Ansa with a fine steeliness. She and Vatanen are restrained and yet manage to scoop out the frisson in every exchange of their characters. Together, they are the most radiant screen duo in a while. Since emotional display is kept on a tight leash in Fallen Leaves just like any other Kaurismaki film, Vatanen and Pöysti make the rare twinkle in Holappa’s eyes and Ansa’s cheeky wink electrifying.
Verdict: Fallen Leaves is a hard-eyed look at life, eschewing sentimentality and embracing evolving perceptions. As much as it evokes love in all its sweep-off-your-feet energy, the film is tempered with a bracing resolve. Yet in Kaurismaki’s delicately constructed world, it is never too late for joy to arrive and hope to flower in the direst of times.