Aki Kaurismäki’s Fallen Leaves is a wickedly offbeat and deliciously charming love story. With its unsentimental packaging and martini-dry wit, this tragicomedy becomes unexpectedly affecting. Masterfully employing his signature minimalist style, Kaurismäki fashions a modern social realist fable, a unique observation of working-class people that plucks hope out of the depths of despair. As he gleefully veers in and out of farce, he dabs in little dashes of arthouse flair, making this dour portrait of life in Helsinki addictively enticing.
The film continues Kaurismäki’s Proletariat series, comprised of Shadows in Paradise (1986), Ariel (1988), and The Match Factory Girl (1990). This was originally conceived as a trilogy. As a later addition to the group, Fallen Leaves contains a fascinating optimism that keeps peaking through the drudgery of the characters’ lives. Even while presenting a wholly unromantic Helsinki as the setting, Kaurismäki does appear to have more fun with previous tropes and tendencies in this film.
Like the others, this film tells the unlikely story of how two lonely people, Ansa (Alma Pöysti) and Holappa (Jussi Vatanen), find love at first sight despite some comically implausible roadblocks. There are misunderstandings abound in this eccentric comedy of errors, one that is populated by their various friends and acquaintances, a most fascinating group of eccentrics if there ever was one.
Despite the specific locale, Kaurismäki detaches the particulars so that its nameless corporate-style supermarkets, drab factories, and squalid flats could exist anywhere. Even the cinema is one that seems removed from an exact place. It acts a beacon of light (and life) for the characters, but it is recognizable only as an identifiable signpost evident in many arthouse films.
In fact, there is something wholly familiar about the world that Kaurismäki depicts but it is made hypnotically strange by the visually arresting compositions of his shots. At the same time, his camera rarely moves. Kaurismäki’s economy of style uses dense single shots to communicate everything you need to know about a character or narrative complication. Add to this the mesmerising pallor of the cinematography.
What’s especially brilliant is Kaurismäki’s strategy of punctuating dramatic moments with a nod to art films of the past and present – everyone from Bresson to Jarmusch. These flashes add wonder. It’s particularly magical in one instance where a piece of paper falls out of a pocket and tumbles down the street.
In Fallen Leaves, Kaurismäki unearths a world of riches through his minimalist vision. While detailing the lives of these unlikely heroes, the filmmaker continues his life’s work of observing the rhythms of daily life. What pushes the film beyond mere observation is the necessary detachment that he and his actors create. This allows us to see the mastery behind their craft and laugh along with them.
Such a strategy allows the viewer to find joy in everyday situations, however much obscured, and no matter how bleak the situation. Kaurismäki’s mix of realism and gentle humour, together with the overarching idiosyncratic feel of Fallen Leaves, creates a world in which happiness can be found even in the most hopeless of lives.