Directed by: Aki Kaurismäki
Written by: Aki Kaurismäki
Starring: Alma Pöysti, Jussi Vatanen
Released: February 14, 2024
Grade: A-

Fallen Leaves

The quality of film festivals varies from year-to-year but most would agree the 2023 Official Selection at Cannes was a top-notch vintage.  The top two prize winners, Anatomy of a Fall and Zone of Interest, have been nominated at the Academy Awards for best picture.  Perfect Days won the Asia Pacific Screen Award for best film.  The likes of May December and Asteroid City have appeared on critics’ top 10 lists across the globe.

The latest graduate from that class to be released in Australia is Fallen Leaves, an 81-minute dark comedy from Finnish writer-director Aki Kaurismäki (Le Havre).  It took home the Jury Prize at Cannes (awarded to a film which “embodies the spirit of inquiry”) and made the shortlist for best international feature at the Oscars (just missing out on a nomination).

I love the Valentine’s Day release here in Australia because it’s perfect for those who love a weird, wacky, offbeat love story.  Holappa (Vatanen) is an alcoholic construction-site worker going nowhere in life.  Talking to a friend, he humorously articulates his Catch-22-like problem – he’s depressed because he drinks… and that he drinks because he’s depressed.  Ansa (Pöysti) is a shy woman who lives alone and holds down a menial, low-paying supermarket job.  She has no television set, and spends her evenings eating expired meals and listening to news stories on her radio (the war in neighbouring Ukraine features heavily).

The pair meet at a bar and promptly go on a hilariously awkward first date.  It begins with Holappa making pointless small talk about the lack of rain, and it finishes with a trip to the local cinema where they watch a “classic” rescreening of the American comedy Zombieland.  There’s no immediate follow-up date because Holappa promptly loses Ansa’s phone number the minute he writes it down.

Hollywood has a way of making romantic comedies and we saw it recently with the extremely popular Anyone but You.  You cast good looking actors, write a joke-heavy script filled with zany scenarios, throw in over-the-top supporting players, and have the chatty leads fall in love with a few bumps along the way.  It’s a proven, successful formula.

They clearly have a different funny bone in Scandinavia because Fallen Leaves does not fit that mould.  Stars Alma Pöysti and Jussi Vatanen deliver their dialogue, and there isn’t much of it, in a dry, slow, monotone fashion.  That approach creates as much humour as the characters themselves.  In blending the laughs amongst the darker themes of poverty and alcoholism, Kaurismäki has created a movie which stands out from the pack.

It may not be for everyone but, in leaning into its quirky nature, Fallen Leaves offers one of the more interesting and authentic romances over the past year.