Film, Film Review

REVIEW: FALLEN LEAVES (2023) dir. Aki Kaurismäki

Opens 12/22 @ Coolidge


The fleeting beauty of temporal happiness is no less beautiful. That’s the poetic heartbeat of Aki Kaurismäki’s latest film, Fallen Leaves. The long-time favorite Finnish director of festival circuit regulars, Kaurismäki has made one of the most talked about films of the year with his fifth movie of the 21st century. Fallen Leaves premiered at the 76th Cannes Film Festival and won the Jury Prize after competing for the Palme d’Or. The title will also represent Finland at the 96th Academy Awards, and it seems a surefire for a shortlist in the foreign language section (though the Academy may always surprise me), in addition to landing on a plethora of critics’ Best-Of lists. It’s not too difficult to see why, either. Kaurismäki’s deadpan style and tonally controlled tragicomedy makes for one of the most interesting watches of the year. 

As if Hong Sang-soo meets Jim Jarmusch (my fellow Cuyahoga Falls native whose The Dead Don’t Die makes a surprise appearance), Fallen Leaves meanders without getting lost in its own pretension or despair. The Swedish actress Alma Pöysti plays Ansa, a zero-hour contractor at the local supermarket (before trying on other equally low-paying jobs). She manages to stay afloat through shitty work situations and an inopportune love life before she meets Holappa (Jussi Vatanen), an alcoholic. The booze is a no-go for Ansa, who lost both her father and brother to alcoholism. Holappa doesn’t appreciate the quick judgment, but eventually comes around to give his feelings a chance.

Of the recent European supermarket location type films — this, Supermarket (2023), In the Aisles (2018), etc… — Fallen Leaves feels less contained to any zeitgeist and more free in its critiques and swings. Very few jobs communicate relatability like a supermarket grocer, a globally lower-class entry level job. Life is reduced to merely what happens between work shifts and sleep in those transitory moments of leisure. The banality of Fallen Leaves gains a new meaning in scenes where fun dance tunes on the radio are replaced with news of bombings in Mariupol and status updates on Ukrainian infrastructure. We’ve lost something through our ever-present connectedness. 

Beyond the references to the war in Ukraine and the Jarmusch movie, very little dates the film to the present. When Ansa first gives Holappa her phone number, she does so the old fashioned way (and he even loses it); she does not pull out her cellphone and exchange numbers the way most (privileged) 21st century people do. The costumes feel vaguely ’80-’90s inspired, the urban landscapes are in a state of always in-progress, and even the analog cinematography comes across as temporally ambiguous. (The film was shot on 35mm KODAK film.) Kaurismäki, who has been making movies since 1983, seems to have made a movie that could have been made at any point in time in his career with only a few negligible changes. 

Tonally, I’m not sure what to make of the film. Ansa and Holappa both live miserable lives but, somehow, Kaurismäki never allows us to feel the full extent of that misery. The most melancholic he ever gets is in the industrial inserts in between the mundanity of work and the frustrated romance. The shots aren’t unlike those so common in the films of Yasujirō Ozu; formally they are basically the same: static train tracks, rusty buildings, construction equipment. Yet, they are so much more despairing than the same shots in Ozu, who glimpses the beauties of family life and romance more than Kaurismäki does here. The urban inserts function differently in this context, where sadness isn’t so sad and yet happiness is even farther off in the emotional distance. 

Even in this tonally bothered approach, the ending is still quite beautiful. There’s never any doubt that it’s not a permanent happiness for these two characters, even if they do end up together. That doesn’t matter, though, because the moment — an expression of love so pure it’s almost childlike — is so touching and vulnerable that it erases the importance of the impermanence of the love. Like in a summer film where the summer will last in its own way through the seasonal change, even a short lived love can last forever.

Fallen Leaves
dir. Aki Kaurismaki
81 min.

Opens Friday, 12/22 exclusively at Coolidge Corner Theatre


Joshua Polanski is a freelance film and culture writer who writes regularly for the Boston Hassle and has contributed to the Bay Area Reporter, In Review Online, and Off Screen amongst other places. His interests include the technical elements of filmmaking & exhibition, slow & digital cinemas, cinematic sexuality, as well as Eastern and Northern European, East Asian, & Middle Eastern film. 

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