REVIEW: Rom-com ‘Fallen Leaves’ simple yet mathematically elegant

Ordinary People: Holappa (Jussi Vatanen) and Ansa (Alma Poysti) dine in “Fallen Leaves.”
Ordinary People: Holappa (Jussi Vatanen) and Ansa (Alma Poysti) dine in “Fallen Leaves.”

A certain kind of moviegoer is going to love Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki's "Fallen Leaves," a comedy about the kind of basic lonely people who seldom figure in love stories. It catalogs a kind of near desperate existence that a lot of people go through in their lives -- a time of little money and quiet desperation, with days filled with joyless work and money problems and nights filled with cigarettes and alcohol.

It's only 81 minutes long, and kind of perfect.

Kaurismäki is a Finnish writer-director who has achieved a level of renown internationally, but has never broken through in the American market. (The closest he might have come was his 1989 mockumentary "Leningrad Cowboys Go America," which was about a Finnish polka band touring the U.S. on their way to Mexico and spawned two sequels, or 2011's "Le Harve.") His films are minimalist, character-driven and drolly ironic and generally focus on working-class characters who, in the end, through dumb human persistence, achieve a small, qualified victory. He is not sentimental, but he is a humanist. To call him Finland's greatest director might be something of an understatement -- I'd personally rank him in the company of Jean-Pierre Melville, Robert Bresson, the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, John Cassavetes and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, all directors who have influenced his style.

"Fallen Leaves" won a major award at the 2023 Cannes, and might be his most accessible film yet (though none of Kaurismäki's movies are genuinely difficult). It opens in a strange-yet-familiar world, a shadowless, fluorescent-lit Helsinki supermarket where Ansa (Alma Pöysti) is stocking shelves. The work does not excite her, she moves like the automaton that, in the not too distant future, may take over her drudgery. She is being watched by a loss prevention specialist, who studies her with the impassive boredom of a prison guard. They are both doing their work.

Ansa is to be fired for taking home food that's past its expiration date. Rules are rules. There is no appeal, and Kaurismäki doesn't cheat us toward revulsion at the manager's decision. It's out of his hands -- those decisions are made far above his pay grade. Ansa receives the news with restrained dignity -- she silently meets his gaze and walks away.

She goes to the California Pub -- a dingy place that feels like it might have been imported from '80s Albania -- where she meets the alcoholic Holappa (Jussi Vatanen), who's hanging around with a group of her friends, not singing karaoke. As others banter and flirt, and the rhythms of the clublife mating rituals play out, Ansa and Holappa silently connect. They don't speak -- that night. But you can feel them both bookmark the encounter.

A little while later, they bump into each other. Holappa invites her to a movie -- Jim Jarmusch's zombie comedy "The Dead Don't Die." (Jarmusch and Kaurismäki are friends; Jarmusch had a small role in "Leningrad Cowboys." If you like Jarmusch's deadpan brand of humor, Kaurismäki movies might be your next binge.)

While neither seems to much like the movie, the date is a success -- sort of. They agree to get together again; Ansa invites him over for dinner, a bigger step than you might think because it required her to go shopping. To buy a second dinner plate.

But then Holappa loses her number. And then his drinking becomes a problem.

OK, it's not really a spoiler to say that, in the end, things kind of work out, in the way that romantic comedies always work out. But the resolution is never the point in a Kaurismäki film, it's all in the asides and tangents, and the offbeat but perfectly plausible moments that cause these two ordinary people to be slowly drawn into each other's gravitational field. Kaurismäki provides us with a master class in editing, in the use of music and in the way he trusts his audience to assimilate the details and understand the important things at the precise time they need to understand them.

In a way, this is a mathematically elegant movie, a simple but precisely calibrated film that we're lucky to have the opportunity to see in a theater.

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  • Cast: Alma Pöysti, Jussi Vatanen, Alina Tomnikov, Martti Suosalo
  • Director: Aki Kaurismäki
  • Rating: Not rated
  • Running time: 1 hour, 21 minutes
  • In Finnish and Arabic, with English subtitles
  • Playing theatrically

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