Fallen Leaves – Film Review

With the war in Ukraine raging, bombs dropping and casualties rising, romance couldn’t be further from some people’s minds. Many of us are depressed, lonely and are generally unhappy with the world today.

This is the miserable life experienced by two poor unfortunate souls in Helsinki, Finland; Ansa (Alma Pöysti), a quiet woman paid casual hours at a supermarket stocking shelves and living hand to mouth and Holappa (Jussi Vatanen), a labourer working as a sandblaster who drinks in his free time. However, Holappa drinks on the job too and it’s starting to get out of hand. In Ansa and Holappa’s world, there is little to do. But one night their workmates, each separately, convince them to visit a karaoke bar. This is where Ansa and Holappa’s paths cross and while it is an uneventful first meeting, it won’t be the only time.

Almost by fate, despite changing jobs, Ansa and Holappa unintentionally meet again and again. Holappa finally musters up the courage to ask her out and they get along well. But it seems the same fates which drew them together want to tear them apart. Lost phone numbers, Holappa’s alcoholism and various other obstacles keep getting in their way. All these two want is to find some degree of happiness in this broken world but will they be able to find it together?

Not particularly well known to mainstream audiences, auteur Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki has nonetheless been hugely influential worldwide to his peers. His minimalist no nonsense deadpan style presents realistic characters with dry humour. From 1986 to 1990, he created his “Proletariat trilogy” (Shadows in ParadiseAriel, and The Match Factory Girl). Now with Fallen Leaves, Kaurismäki adds a fourth instalment with a film similarly based around the Finnish working class.

Immediately noticeable in Fallen Leaves like in Kaurismäki’s other works is the dour depressing world he creates. The oppressive bleakness of life just screams communist dystopia of decades past, despite its very modern 2024 setting. Whenever a character turns on the radio, they’re bombarded with the latest horrors from the war in Ukraine; hospitals being bombed, train stations collapsing, casualties rising, to the point they lose all meaning.

The world is so gloomy that it comes full circle around to being almost comical at times. The humour of Fallen Leaves is very subtle and realistic, being handled much the same way as everything else. But against the backdrop of such unrelenting misery, it shines bright, encouraging you to notice it more. A scene where Ansa and Holappa first agree to go on a date while off screen Ansa’s boss is hurling abuse at being arrested, had me wiping away tears of laughter. There aren’t a lot of laughs in Fallen Leaves but when it’s there, it’s effective.

But the heart of Fallen Leaves lies in its two lead characters and their desire to have a happier life. Holappa can tell from the beginning that his drinking is destroying him, he wishes to change but alcoholism’s claws have set in. Ansa is a much more mellowed character by comparison and while Ansa does hope for a future with Holappa, she will not do it on anyone else’s terms. Ansa’s warmth and outlook gives the film a much more altruistic feel than a typical boy-meets-girl story.

Although, I would have liked more humour in the second half, the story never overstays its welcome. Kaurismäki‘s work is the definition of ‘short but sweet’ as the auteur feels films should never last longer than 90 minutes (this runs a scant 81).

Fallen Leaves follows the bond between two people in a lonely place. Uniquely hopeful, the film addresses the importance of finding one’s own happiness in the world, no matter how dire things may seem.

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