Ansa (Alma Pöysti) and Holappa (Jussi Vatanen) are strays. Their lives both coexist from afar. Ansa works in a supermarket on a woeful zero-hour contract. Holappa works in construction, surrounded by management that doesn’t care about faulty equipment. Both are isolated from the outside world, stuck living in their own same patterns every day. It’s only when their eyes lock in a karaoke bar in Helsinki that they finally take a chance on life. Fallen Leaves follows Ansa and Holappa as they discover what it’s like to fall in love in a usually lonely existence.
Fallen Leaves is extremely magnetic. Both leads deliver exquisite performances, making you root for their companionship to blossom throughout the short but sweet 81-minute runtime. Ansa and Holappa’s romance is believable. They’re both outcasts, with the odd friend here and there that they do everything with. Holappa’s best friend and colleague Huotari (Janne Hyytiäinen) loves attention. He particularly loves the attention from women, hopping onto the karaoke machine to try and impress everyone whenever he’s out at the bar. Holappa usually just sits in his chair, watching Huotari, sipping pints like they’re water.
What makes Fallen Leaves feel so special is that Ansa and Holappa come across as “real” people. Director and writer Aki Kaurismäki has captured the palpable sensation of feeling lonely. Having limited friends, or none at all, and feeling like an outsider sometimes makes you feel hopeless for the future. Countless rom-coms expect the outsider to make it work with a celebrity. They’re unbelievably fun to watch, but just so unrealistic. It’s gratifying to have something authentic to see instead.
Kaurismäki’s references to other movies make Fallen Leaves just that bit more fun. Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight is cited as a big influence on Kaurismäki. Miraculously enough, when Ansa adopts the cutest dog in cinema history, she names it Chaplin. Chaplin the dog is photoshopped into many of the Fallen Leaves posters which solidifies the film as one of my favorites of the year.
Jim Jarmusch’s divisive zombie movie The Dead Don’t Die is playing when Ansa and Holappa go on their first date to the cinema together. Kaurismäki has a history with Jarmusch, most notably casting him in his 1989 road movie Leningrad Cowboys Go America as a car dealer. Knowing the two directors are friends makes the cinema trip scintillating, especially when another movie-goer at the cinema declares The Dead Don’t Die reminded them of Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest.
While predominantly focusing on two lonely individuals and their lives in Helsinki, there’s a constant reminder of what’s going on in the world around them. Whenever the radio is turned on, there’s talk of the war in Ukraine. Ansa and Holappa have limited technology; no smartphones, no TV. The news is always dispiriting, which is often met with the radio being turned off. Despite society being depressing, Ansa and Holappa are able to find elation in each other. You sometimes can find love at the most surprising times.
Cinematographer Timo Salminen, who’s worked with Kaurismäki on countless occasions, composes each and every shot of Fallen Leaves to look elegant. Most of the backdrop isn’t in affluent areas, yet Salminen makes it look like a place where you want to fall in love. From the outside of the cinema where Holappa chain smokes cigarettes, to Ansa’s small but cozy apartment, where she can only fit enough kitchen utensils for one person, it’s all made to look dreamy.
Fallen Leaves is exquisitely witty and sublime. It’s a film that makes you want to fall in love with every aspect of your life. You can’t help but adore Ansa and Holappa, and the journey they take together in Helsinki.
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