Film Review

Fallen Leaves (2023)

todayFebruary 1, 2024 40

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By – Gareth Jones

For fans of deadpan Finnish humor, Aki Kaurismäki, class romance stories

Few filmmakers have had such a consistent and distinctive career as Aki Kaurismäki.  For over 40 years he has been entertaining audiences with his dark, Finnish stories of pain and suffering blended magically with his deadpan humor.  He has many influences (Jean-Luc Godard, Robert Bresson, Buster Keaton), but he makes distinctive Finnish films.  His career is mirrored by his American colleague and sometimes collaborator Jim Jarmusch.  They are two artists cut from the same cloth.  For me, the best episode in Jarmusch’s Night on Earth is the Finnish section.  Kaurismäki even sends his protagonist couple in this film to watch The Dead Don’t Die, Jarmusch’s zombie film.

For his latest masterpiece, Kaurismäki presents another pair of protagonists that are stuck in a horrific cycle of poverty, alcoholism, loneliness, and despair.  Ansa (portrayed in the drabbest of clothing incredibly by Alma Pöysti) is miserable in her job at the grocery store and is fired for pocketing an expired sandwich. Holappa (played by Jussi Vatanen with sincerity and intensity) is a metal factory worker who drowns his misery in alcohol.  One night, they meet at a karaoke bar and listen to Holappa’s only friend sing an old Finnish ballad.  They immediately connect but in a series of mishaps and stubbornness, their ability to build a relationship has many ups and downs. 

Sounds delightful, yes?  But don’t let that scare you away.  He perfectly balances this with a deeply felt love story and jokes delivered in a hilarious monotone.  Like the master, Robert Bresson, he has his actors deliver their lines in the most emotionless method possible.  This allows for more humor but it also makes it even more powerful when the slightest hint of emotion is shown.  Each actor delivers an astonishing performance from this standard. It also allows Kaurismäki to mix in nonprofessional actors with the professionals seamlessly.  All deliver his jokes in the driest way possible.  It is sublime.  He is channeling the two great comics in this way, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin.  The Great StoneFace was one of the first to create characters with depth and emotion in spite of showing next to nothing on the face.  Chaplin was the master at delivering pathos with the comedy.  Kaurismäki continues this tradition whilst also making it his own.

The music in an Aki Kaurismäki film is always specific and essential.  His Leningrad Cowboy movies and his early connection to the punk rock movement have made him a true legend in music.  Each song is selected to replace dialogue and to give each character an additional voice.  They are also just entertaining.  This soundtrack includes the amazing female duo Maustetytöt who are perfectly in tune with Kaurismäki’s delivery and humor.  

The production design of Kaurismäki films is also always important, with each film being set in a bleak cityscape of blandness and dilapidation. It could be 1940, but it is the present.  Intersected within this world are posters and colorful items that bounce off the screen as a result.  In this film, that includes beautiful film posters and band flyers at the bar.  One of my favorites is a poster of Tom Jones.

Aki Kaurismäki has once again delivered a tight, eighty-one minute long ode to the human experience.  It is profound, filled with sharp, biting humor, and yet also a deeply moving poetic work of art.

Available to stream on MUBI or rent on other platforms.  

Written by: jamric

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