If you think Finns have no sense of humour, that’s because you have never seen any of Aki Kaurismäki’s films. Fallen Leaves is as close as it gets to a romantic comedy under the influence of Diazepam. The action is torpid, almost soporific, the dialogues laborious and slow. Often characters just sit and stare at each other. But they still possess the desire to seek love, and their misadventures as they failed attempts to achieve their goal are guaranteed to elicit laughter.
Ansa (Alma Pöysti) and Holappa (Jussi Vatanen) are both around 30 years of age, good-looking and single. Holappa is repeatedly fired from one job after another because he’s an alcoholic. Ansa too briefly faces unemployment, however she pulls herself together and forges ahead (her quiet determination and the absence of a vice are valuable assets). The two lonely people meet one day at backstreet karaoke joint. They embark on a near-romance that never seems to come to fruition due to various unfortunate serendipities (such as Ansa arriving for a date just a few moments after a chain-smokingly anxious Holappa has left the spot.
They eventually watch Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die (2029) together at the local repertoire cinema, a place covered in old posters of classic European films, all written in Finnish. A cinema-goer compares Jarmusch’s zombie comedy to the films of Robert Bresson and Jean-Luc Godard. This remark is just one of the many hilarious absurdities that dot Fallen Leaves. The karaoke scenes are tastefuly wacky, with mostly middle-aged men and women delivering their heartfelt rendition of clunky Finnish schlager songs (Olavo’s Virta’s Mambo Italiano is one of the highlights). Because Finns really have that Latin swagger, right? A one-way hospital conversation is also particularly awkward, with a character concocting the possibility that Finland would play Brazil in the Wold Cup finals as the favourite team to win. Quite!
The 19th feature film by Finland’s most prominent filmmaker is dark comedy with all of the director’s recognisable trademarks: bleak, minimalistic settings, stoical characters, torpid conversations, subtle socio-political commentary (This comes on the radio, which incessantly reports on the Ukrainian War) and a dash of deadpan (perhaps an inevitable consequence of blending humour and Finnish dispassionate and laconic attitude towards life). Fallen Leaves will make your cringe and laugh. It will also put a smile on your face. After all, love is in the air. Even if it’s the curtest and most impassive version of it.
Fallen Leaves premiered in the Official Competition of the 76th Cannes Film Festival, when this piece was originally written. Its UK premiere takes place in October, as part of the BFI London Film Festival. It also shows at the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival. In UK cinemas on Friday, December 1st.