Cannes 2023 review: Fallen Leaves (Aki Kaurismäki)

“Humanist filmmaking at its finest, Fallen Leaves might just be the film that nets Kaurismäki his Palme, but whatever happens on Saturday, a prize seems all but certain.”

At a festival where every film seems to be at least six hours long, leave it to Finnish master-of-minimalism Aki Kaurismäki to deliver economic filmmaking at its finest, though admittedly for a very small tale. Every so often you see a film where a premise fit for a short story is stretched to two hours, leaving a lot of dead space in the screenplay, but Kaurismäki finds just the perfect (and blissfully short) 80-minute runtime for his latest film Fallen Leaves. A story of two lonely souls finding each other with a surprising amount of music and singing, Fallen Leaves and Kaurismäki’s trademark deadpan humour easily won its audience over at the several screenings it has had on the Croisette, if reports are to be believed (it did at mine).

Holappa (Jussi Vatanen) is a construction worker with an alcohol problem. Ansa (Alma Pöysti) is a supermarket employee who sneaks out food past its consumption date. When both are laid off for their ‘problems’, a chance encounter in a karaoke bar brings two lost people together (side note: if you ever want to hear great singers, visit a Finnish karaoke bar; if we can go by this film, anyway). Once they overcome their shyness they go for a coffee (where Ansa already notices Holappa’s drinking problem) and later a cinema date; Ansa really enjoyed Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die. She gives him her phone number, which he promptly loses, yet eventually they find each other again. But Holappa’s alcohol dependency threatens to cut their budding romance short…

Kaurismäki has always had a knack for being very subtle when weaving any social themes into his films, and Fallen Leaves is no exception, although as usual a lot of reading between the lines can be done. There are continuous reports in radio bulletins about Russian air strikes on Ukraine, making it one of the first films to address the conflict directly. Finland’s close proximity to Russia makes it an obviously important matter to the country, but characters turn the reports off with increasing annoyance, clearly a biting bit of social commentary on Kaurismäki’s part. And in a country where heavy alcohol consumption is part of the culture, Holappa’s alcoholism is a serious matter to introduce as a negative into the film. Kaurismäki is not the director to make broad societal statements, but his opinions and insights are as clear as the spirits his characters consume.

Social commentary aside, Fallen Leaves is a tragicomedy in the vein of, well, basically every other Aki Kaurismäki film. Fans of his deadpan humour get what they came for in spades, and those who seek out his rigid formalism will not be disappointed either, although there does seem to be more freedom in camera movement and a looser mise-en-scene at times. A film with plenty of sad sacks and alcohol, one element is present in abundance that was rarer in his previous films: music. The film includes at least three full songs, and several playing on background radios and such. There is a sense of padding, but they do provide ample possibilities for snide humour in this otherwise gentle comedy about the difficulties life throws at you when you’re trying to find happiness. Humanist filmmaking at its finest, Fallen Leaves might just be the film that nets Kaurismäki his Palme, but whatever happens on Saturday, a prize seems all but certain.