In Aki Kaurismäki’s ‘Fallen Leaves,’ Two Lonely Workers Circumvent Romance in a Bleak Helsinki

Aki Kaurismäki’s “Fallen Leaves” is the fourth film in the Finnish director’s “Proletariat” series following “Shadows in Paradise,” “Ariel,” and the 1990 film “The Match Factory Girl.” Set against the war in Ukraine in the year 2024, his new dark romantic comedy has a 1970s feel to it. The surroundings are gritty, the landscape is grim. We don’t see many cell phones, but hear rotary phones. Ansa (Alma Pöysti) goes to an internet café, but gets her news on a transistor radio. It is more reliable than the new technology. The mixture bridges a reliable past to a treacherous present, and an uncertain future. 

Ansa just lost her job stocking shelves at a supermarket in Helsinki, fired for taking home expired items consigned to the dumpster, or giving them to the homeless. Her next job, as a dishwasher in a local bar which is also a front for illegal trade like drugs, lasts only long enough for the boss to get arrested. Holappa (Jussi Vatanen) is a metal worker and an enthusiastically budding alcoholic, inasmuch as he can be enthusiastic about anything. Early in the film he explains why he needs his booze: basically so he can live a shortened life with few memories. He drinks to forget how depressed he gets when drinking. His older work friend, Huotari (Janne Hyytiäinen), calls this “circular thinking.” Holappa doesn’t even turn it around in his head.

Ansa and Holappa’s romance is deeply unromantic. They are stiff and unbending. The first kiss is an afterthought to Ansa, and a reluctant gesture from Holappa, due to its unexpected approach and novel quality in his life. Their humor is deadpan, its wit dulled by the constant wear of their dehumanizing environment. That’s the fun part. In spite of everything thrown against them, and with nothing to show for it, the characters still know a funny zombie movie when they see one. Ansa can still proclaim Huotari as a karaoke king to her friend Liisa (Nuusa Koivu), who shot down his attempt at seduction because he was past his prime. 

Ansa and Holappa meet wordlessly in a karaoke club, but he fades into shadows for a smoke to match his mirror broken at home. Holappa is so drunk at their second encounter, a group of teens already balked at rolling him, and Ansa can’t rouse him enough to get on a bus, or acknowledge it. The pair go to see Jim Jarmusch’s “The Dead Don’t Die” after watching the bar owner dragged away by the police, telling his assembled, as-yet-unpaid, employees to take the next two weeks off. By the time they leave the Ritz theatre they are so low-key smitten, Holappa immediately loses Ansa’s hastily written phone number, setting the tone for the frustrating journey out of isolation each one has to take, one misstep at a time. 

Kaurismäki finds new ways to approach the traditional rom-com formula. Besides the best friend trope, Liisa is also a figure of working-class unity, quitting her job in solidarity with Ansa, along with proclaiming all men as swine. It is only later she takes on the clichéd arc, opening the idea she might entertain the thought of seeing Huotari. He represents the old ways as much as being the best possible friend Holappa could have under his peculiar self-imposed circumstances. The film switches perspectives between the two romantic leads, as their innate outsider behavior alienates them from their community, and sets them on a collision course. The harshest of the crashes is heard offscreen as a physical comic punchline set against the cold stones of a street with a train crossing.

Ansa and Holappa are made for one another, and “Fallen Leaves” is a hopeful love story. Kaurismäki, who also wrote the screenplay, is rooting for this couple, and goes out of his way to normalize the odds stacked against them. When Ansa finally invites Holappa to dinner, she realizes she only has one place setting. She’s been alone so long, the thought of splurging on a second has never come up. Ansa serves screw-top sparkling wine as an aperitif, which doesn’t quench Holappa’s real thirst, as he tips his own flask on the sly. When Ansa says she won’t accept an alcoholic because her father and brother died from alcoholism and her mother died from grief, he tells her he doesn’t take orders. It is a large gap to bridge. Drinking is a hard habit to break, and Holappa, who works as a sandblaster at the start of the film, gets fired for drinking on the job more than once. 

Timo Salminen’s cinematography is bleak and beautiful. Using only natural light, he captures an urban grime at its most unflattering. The shadows are murky. Extensive use of medium and wide shots on a static camera makes the audience feel like visitors, observing the events at a distance, while the players intimately explore the neighborhood they’re stuck in forever, even if an agent from some big record label shows up on karaoke night. Helsinki is depressing to visit, but reality to its citizens, even homey. Besides the concrete of the blocks and soot of the construction sites, Salminen brilliantly captures the tones of the prefabricated one-room apartments, and work crew living trailers of the city’s industrial section.

Kaurismäki is a little too artsy to make a movie for the workers, filled with escapism and hardships much easier on the eyes. He makes proletariat cinema. A true worker gets paid by the hour, and the film comes in at under an hour and a half. But the performances have the laconic feel of a salaried employee running out the clock. Words are inadequate for the necessary communication of deep hurt and vast chasms. But the audience is treated to shots of Ansa in front of a rain-splattered window, which says more than dialogue and ties “Fallen Leaves” to its cinematic relatives. 

Besides the funny zombie film, which allegorically mocks similarly insurmountable odds against the average person, Kaurismäki pays homage to cinema throughout “Fallen Leaves.” Ansa names the stray dog she takes home “Chaplin.” When Ansa and Holappa are outside the Ritz theatre, they are standing under the poster of David Lean’s 1945 film “Brief Encounter,” which also features impossible romance. This is a lost lesson to the improbable couple. When Holappa asks Ansa for her name, she says “I’ll tell you next time,” almost ensuring this will be a brief encounter after he loses her phone number when the piece of paper flies down the block.

The working class expects much lighter com in their rom, like the sparkling wine Ansa serves. The director allows its fizz to evoke a shared pleasure, and add some buzz to the drudgery of broken dreams. It might appear Kaurismäki allows the characters their only fantasy at karaoke, but the soundtrack matches the interior tone. The leather-jacketed, rebel-without-a-clue, Holappa may only adopt his “tough guys don’t sing” attitude because he’s got a horrible voice, but he empathizes deeply with a local female duo translating live depression with synth beats, haunting harmonies and inescapable melody. Huotari excels in his opening Finnish tango song, which follows some worker earnestly belting out some rockabilly. We hear Tchaikovsky, “Mambo Italiano,” and versions of “Kuolleet Lehdet” (“Dead Leaves”), known in English as “Autumn Leaves.” 

“Fallen Leaves” is minimal, offbeat, dry, and bleak, but Kaurismäki is a master of desolate deadpan. While romantics might crave more romance, film lovers will find a rich story about poor loners looking for an affordable connection. The payoff is ultimately satisfying.

Fallen Leaves” releases Nov. 17 in select theaters.