Fallen Leaves Review: Aki Kaurismakis Latest Human Comedy And Competition Entry Is A Flat-Out Gem Cannes Film Festival

The very first winner of the Palme d’Or in 1955 was future Best Picture Oscar winner Marty which starred Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair as two lonely middle aged adults beginning a tentative relationship in search of love. Before it was called the Palme d’Or, the top Cannes prize known then as the Grand Prix, went in 1946 at the festival’s beginning to David Lean’s Brief Encounter, also the story of two adults who meet by chance and get together.

Both of those Cannes Classics have something inherently in common with Aki Kaurismaki’s wonderful, wryly funny, and poignant new film, Fallen Leaves (Kuolleet Lehdet) which premiered today at Cannes, the latest Competition entry for the master Finnish filmmaker who was last in the run for the Palme d’Or with 2011’s equally great Le Havre. Despite several Eumenical prizes at the fest over the years, Kaurismaki only came close to the Palme with 2002’s The Man Without A Past which also put him- and Finland – in the running for the Foreign Language Oscar. If there is any justice Fallen Leaves will bring the filmmaker, responsible with his brother for most of the country’s cinematic success in the past four decades, the kind of recognition he deserves. It is a true gem and the first time this year I have heard applause at the end from the usually stone faced press who attend the early morning pre-premiere screenings at the Palais.

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Fallen Leaves, a deeply human film from one of the great humanist filmmakers, is about two lonely people, their chance meeting, and the star-crossed relationship that follows. Alma Poysti is Ansa, a middle aged single woman who seems to go from one dead end job to another. We first see her as a supermarket clerk, expressionless, heading home to another stale pre-cooked dinner she just tosses in the garbage. She has a couple of friends at work, particularly Liisa (Nuppu Koiua) but that is about it. Cut to Holappa (that is his last name) played by Jussi Vatanen. He works a construction job, basically keeps to himself but drinks heavily. His friend, Huotari (an amusing Janne Hyytiainen) is livelier, and at over 50 seriously in denial about his age, and tries to get him interested in going out to a Karaoke bar but he drolly replies, “tough guys don’t sing”. He goes anyway and there we get to hear Huotari in all his, uh, glory.

All of this is presented in Kaurismaki’s signature style of deadpan dialogue delivered with precision by his well-chosen actors. The writer/director is a keen observer of human behavior, and in fact this is the fourth film in his celebrated working class trilogy (what do we call it now?) preceded by Shadows In Paradise, Ariel, and Match Factory Girl. He says it is a tip of the hat to his heroes, Bresson, Ozu , and Chaplin, but it is unmistakably Kaurismaki.

Although you might call this a droll tragicomedy, the director is also more seriously inspired by the state of Europe and the world, particularly the war in Ukraine. At both apartments the state of the bombings and deaths is constantly heard in the background being reported on the news. Kaurismaki is compelled now more than ever to make a movie that celebrates life and love, not war, as perhaps these two last-chancers could finally find the soulmate they have never had. And after all, isn’t that the only thing that matters when the world is falling apart around you?

They do finally connect, awkwardly over a cup of coffe, and without even exchanging names. Holappa suggests going to a movie. She asks him to choose and he selects a zombie film (actually it is Kaurismaki’s cinematic soulmate Jim Jarmusch’s 2013 Cannes entry, Only Lovers Left Alive). In front of some classic movie posters including Brief Encounter (a frequent background for these two) they make plans to see each other again, but he loses her phone number and actually never got her name, nor did she get his. She thinks he ditched her, but in another encounter in front of the theatre they meet again, he explains what happened, and she invites him to dinner which doesn’t go well when she sees he has a drinking problem. “He thought my place was a pub,” she laments to her friend. It ends badly. She gets a rescue dog instead, done with any hope for romance. “Men are Swine,” Liisa tells her. “No. Swine are sensitive and intelligent,” Ansa replies.

Ansa rolls through another couple of jobs, her luck still bad. Hoappa gets fired from his, but takes on another that doesn’t pay well, still drinking. Eventually they meet again, and again fate intervenes. Will this pair ever find happiness they deserve on this miserable planet?

Kaurismaki doesn’t let us down with the direction his film takes, but he also doesn’t go for typical Hollywood plotting in his story about two people who just never found the person to share a life with, but maybe, just maybe, there is still hope. The movie’s title comes from a lyric in the song, “Autumn Leaves” and perfectly describes the plight of Ansa and Holappa (we never do find out what his first name is)

Poysti and Vatanen both turn out to be ideally matched in the leads, utterly believable as average working stiffs hit in the face by their drab existence, but not ready to call it quits. In your average Hollywood romcom (something this is not) Hyytiainen and Koiua would be the sidekicks, comedic relief, and here they both fill that role in style. The director has, as usual, a real talent for casting memorable characters right down to the smallest roles. The dog is a wonderful touch and quite frankly I would give him the Palme Dog award at Cannes instantly. I won’t reveal his name because in pure Billy Wilder Apartment/Some Like It Hot style Kaurismaki saves it for a fade out zinger that will have you happily smiling.

I think I just found my favorite movie of the 2023 Cannes Film Festival.

Title: Fallen Leaves

Festival: Cannes (in competition)

Director/Screenplay : Aki Kaurismaki

Cast: Alma Poysti, Jussi Vatanen, Janne Hyytiainen, Nuppu Koiua

Running TIme: 1 hour and 23 minutes

Sales Agent: The Match Factory

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