Fallen Leaves Review: A Nostalgic, and Hopeful Portrait of Love

Aki Kaurismäki, the auteur, is auteuring hard in ‘Fallen Leaves’. The film is streaming on MUBI.
Fallen Leaves Review: A Nostalgic, and Hopeful Portrait of Love
Fallen Leaves Review: A Nostalgic, and Hopeful Portrait of Love

Director, Writer: Aki Kaurismäki

Cast: Alma Pöysti, Jussi Vatanen

Duration: 81 minutes

Available on: MUBI

I have always wondered why Finnish film director and screenwriter Aki Kaurismäki holds his frame long after the characters have exited it. The image, then, rests on the mere presence and power of the architecture — the walls, the table, the road, that were once inhabited, now emptied of people. Perhaps, I thought, it is Kaurismäki approaching the spectral loneliness of Helsinki. Perhaps, it is to insist that a film about people is also about the space they scratch at, and sculpt themselves within. It seemed like a purely aesthetic, almost cerebral decision. It is in his latest film, Fallen Leaves, however, that my theories tumbled on their head, because for once I felt the visceral urgency of this cinematic itch of his. 

Loneliness Begets Love

Two characters, Ansa (Alma Poysti) and Holappa (Jussi Vatanen) — that is his second name, the first we are not told —  have just gone on a date. They had met at a karaoke bar; he then bought her dinner; they went to the movies where she watched the screen, and he watched her, harking back to a similar image in Light In The Dusk (2006). Few days and a few serendipitous sparks later, he went over to her place for dinner and drink — singular drink. 

Both of them have been recently laid off, a common motif running through Kaurismäki’s cinema, which in the decades post the dissolution of the Soviet Union has been preoccupied — somewhat forcefully but not overtly — on the collapse of the Finnish economy. The wealthy, the powerful, the oppressors are often sketched in the edges of his films, almost prone to being typecast. In interviews, he himself has noted, “They’re (the wealthy) completely irrelevant; at most they’re caricatures who play the fool for a maximum of thirty seconds … they’re just such dull characters, all of them.” 

A still from Fallen Leaves
A still from Fallen Leaves

Kaurismäki’s Style

Despite being bound by the cracked demands of realism, his films always have a smooth, taut and other-wordly surface. Film scholar Andrew Nestingen, in his book The Cinema of Aki Kaurismäki: Contrarian Stories notes this “contradictory, quality, nowhere more evident than in the contrast between quotidian realism and stylised pastiche,” a contrast between something grisly and painful and something light and silly. 

Ansa and Holappa have a small spat — he finds her alcohol serving miserly; she finds him a drunk. He leaves. The camera lingers on his path, the road leading away from her house. The frame stays, empty, long after Holappa has exited it. Suddenly, there is this gripping hope, almost a desperation that he will return. That hope is located in this silence, in what Kaurismäki allowed by refusing to cut when Holappa’s actions were over. 

This moment, like an epiphany, clarified so much of Kaurismäki’s lens — the hope for characters to return, to a place, to a relationship, to a circumstance. It expressed something essential to his cinema, filled with this yearning that isn’t forward looking as much as it is regressive — not in a negative, retarding sense, but in a comforting fall back to older rhythms. Plotting oneself on the border between longing for the past — nostalgia — and longing for a future — hope. 

A still from Fallen Leaves
A still from Fallen Leaves

Distinctive Visual Language

Fallen Leaves, in a clean, economic stream of images follows these two characters, their individual lives, the knocking together of them and the brief spat. As always with Kaurismäki, they come together in a sweet knot that does not feel final, yet feels resolved — a charming incompleteness — like a circle that hasn’t been closed exactly; an almost-ness that haunts the happiness with which the film closes. Though his films are known to be “funny” the humour is always so wrapped up in Finnish comportments it is as subtle as silence itself. 

Throughout the film, in the background, as radio announcements, we can hear the escalating war of Russia in Ukraine, something Ansa keeps shutting after listening to it for a moment or two — how much falling apart of the world can a person falling apart endure? Odd, since in the theatre they are watching Jim Jarmusch The Dead Don’t Die, a 2019 film. Are we, then, in the present? Why are radios so prevalent? Where are the iPhones? What is this contemporary moment that Finland is inhabiting? Or, perhaps, the question is, what is this contemporary moment that Kaurismäki’s Finland is inhabiting? Timeless is, perhaps, too trite a word to describe a world so touched by the present moment, and yet hovering uneasily, gracefully, over it. 

Stitched along with ‘Mambo Italiano’, Finnish Romantic Nationalism and the regular Rock And Roll, the images are culled from Timo Salminen’s camera — he has shot every Kaurismäki film, from the 1981 documentary on the Finnish local music scene — which lights spaces and faces theatrically, with a sharp, chalky clarity even in the deepest dusks. Sometimes you are looking at a frame, where just their faces are lit, pale and porcelain, and wonder, where is the light coming from? They almost resemble apparitions. 

The thing about Kaurismäki’s movies, of which Fallen Leaves is an exemplar, is their incredibly singular and distinctive visual aesthetic — the still, staged frames bursting with hard colour and soft intention, the deadpan delivery, the minimalist furniture, the single painting on the wall — which aids his singular and distinctive desire — that is to tell stories of alienated people, in a crumbling city, finding love. 

An image, then, from the film, of Ansa buying a plate and cutlery for Holappa’s visit, becomes emblematic of this alienation from and, simultaneously, the aspiration for companionship — that she only has one plate, one pair of cutlery at her home; that, over the course of the film, another set would be stacked alongside, both scratched at from use, for years and years. That is the hope, anyway. 

Related Stories

No stories found.