Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki has always excelled at providing insular gems that still manage to speak to the human condition with black humor and deep tenderness; but that’s perhaps never been truer than in his latest offering. Now selected as Finland’s Oscar entry for Best International Feature, this movie follows two working-class people connecting and forming a relationship, dealing with all the troubles therein. The premise might seem simple, mundane even, but it’s in that mundanity that Kaurismäki and Co. find the most special kind of magic, one that we all encounter each day of our life. It might not be a sci-fi blockbuster epic, but what’s more epic, what’s more exciting than baring your soul to another human being and having them do the same? These moments of connection don’t just drive the film but are what make life itself worth living.
The look of this movie is fascinating, and I think it perhaps speaks to the themes Kaurismäki’s working with. Each time Ansa’s near a radio or television set, we get small snippets about the war in Ukraine, which places the movie in a contemporary setting; and yet, as we look at Holappa’s leather jacket or small set details like the radios and table décor, viewers can’t help but think we’ve stepped into the 70s/80s. These set design and costume choices give the film a timeless quality that perhaps hints at something universal and everlasting about what it means to be human living in capitalist society. It’s always been hard to balance work and healthy relationships, or to find time for yourself. Including these tensions, along with the restrained acting performances, leaves plenty of room for viewers to insert themselves into this story.
In a recent interview, lead actress Alma Pöysti said these characters’ age is significant because “It takes courage to fall in love later in life.” You can sense that hesitant vulnerability in the measured nature of each lead actor’s performance. The emotions are never shown in any grand way here. There are no screaming matches or melodramatic monologues. This isn’t to say the emotions aren’t big; at every moment we feel the weight of this film’s sentimental stakes, but they’re conveyed in a way that relies on subtlety and plenty of smart humor throughout. Because of that, I felt fully submerged in this movie. The jokes are never performative or heavy handed, which is a hard balance to strike.
I feel like knowing how to shoot night scenes is an increasingly lost art, but cinematographer Timo Salminen plays with practicals in a way that leaves plenty of warmth in the frame. It borders on expressive, and I love every minute of it. I’d also be remiss to not mention one of my favorite scenes in the film, as Holappa sits in a bar, listening to a live band play one of the best movie songs I’ve ever heard. Like the film as a whole, this moment is so efficient and does a lot of work to build our understanding of his character’s psycho-emotional state.
I love this movie. It’s almost impossible to pull off a story that’s been done from every angle imaginable, but Kaurismäki managed to crack the code and make it look easy. The craft elements, the character work, and a script that makes us laugh and cry at the same time all help create one of the must-see events this weekend. Fallen Leaves is now streaming on MUBI, and you absolutely must watch it! It made my Favorite Movies of 2023 list for a reason! If you enjoyed this review, consider subscribing to the blog’s Patreon by clicking here! It helps pay the various fees that come with running a website, and keeps this blog ad-free and independent. There are also some cool benefits for those who choose to support the blog including: suggesting which movies I review, getting personalized movie recommendations, access to free giveaways and more!