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Movie Review: ‘Fallen Leaves’ is deadpan nirvana

by Michael Nguyen
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Film Review: 'Fallen Leaves' - Empathy

Film Review: ‘Fallen Leaves’ Embodies Deadpan Serenity

Amidst a year filled with lengthy, grandiose cinematic endeavors by renowned auteur directors, emerges an 81-minute masterpiece that eclipses them all. Aki Kaurismäki’s “Fallen Leaves,” succinct, endearing, and profoundly delightful, is the kind of film that leaves you yearning to watch it again as soon as it concludes.

Kaurismäki, the Finnish writer-director master of deadpan storytelling, has spent nearly four decades crafting minimalist, unflinchingly honest tales of individuals navigating harsh economic realities, primarily from the working class. Despite the bleakness of his narratives, they are imbued with humor, empathy, and profundity. His films maintain a stoic facade that never quite conceals the underlying warmth.

The same can be said for one of the central characters in the poignant and tender “Fallen Leaves.” When Holappa (portrayed by Jussi Vatanen), a construction worker, is invited to karaoke by his friend Houtari (played by Kaurismäki veteran Janne Hyytiäinen), he retorts, “Tough guys don’t sing.”

Houtari’s response is swift: “You’re not a tough guy.”

“Fallen Leaves,” Kaurismäki’s first film since 2017’s “The Other Side of Hope,” revolves around Holappa and a woman named Ansa (depicted by Alma Pöysti), both solitary individuals struggling to make ends meet in Helsinki. Their initial encounter takes place at a karaoke bar where Houtari proudly showcases his singing skills (a recurring theme throughout the movie, as he constantly seeks compliments for his performances). However, Ansa and Holappa observe quietly from a distance.

Kaurismäki orchestrates their connection, albeit gradually. “Fallen Leaves” stands as the year’s most compelling on-screen romance, even though its potential lovers exchange only a handful of words and remain unaware of each other’s names for most of the film.

The essence of the narrative lies in the circumstances they both face. At the film’s outset, Ansa works at a supermarket under the watchful eye of a security guard. She is dismissed for retaining an expired item rather than discarding it. Back at home, she stares at her bills and eventually cuts off the power. Her subsequent job at a restaurant turns sour when the owner is arrested for drug-related activities on payday.

Holappa loses his job as well, following an accident at a construction site attributed to subpar equipment. He’s terminated for having alcohol in his system. While he’s unfairly made a scapegoat, his struggle with alcoholism is evident, with bottles of vodka concealed in his locker and at the job site.

“I’m depressed because I drink, and I drink because I’m depressed,” he confides in Houtari.

The cinematography, courtesy of Kaurismäki’s longtime collaborator Timo Salminen, is beautifully minimalistic, punctuated by occasional bursts of color and irony, giving “Fallen Leaves” a timeless quality. It portrays the world’s cruelty as an enduring state, a sensation amplified by the film’s contemporary relevance, with news from the war in Ukraine constantly playing whenever Ansa turns on the radio.

In Kaurismäki’s cinematic universe, authoritarian figures abound. (His radiant 2011 film “Le Havre,” centered on an elderly French shoe shiner assisting a migrant boy, hinged on a police officer who chose to turn a blind eye in the climactic moment.) In “Fallen Leaves,” cursing the tormentors who make life unbearable, having a drink, and seeking solace in the movies appear to be the only viable options.

Each element in the film pays homage to the director’s deep connection to cinema. These cinematic nods make “Fallen Leaves” — which clinched the jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival and served as Finland’s Oscar submission — one of Kaurismäki’s most personal and introspective works. While he may eschew in-depth analysis or praise, as Ansa and Holappa silently gravitate toward each other, devoid of flowery romance, they carve out a small, private refuge from the world around them, akin to the sanctuary that movies provide. “Fallen Leaves” is a lean, unvarnished exploration of life, punctuated by the presence of a dog named Chaplin.

“Fallen Leaves,” distributed by Mubi, is not rated by the Motion Picture Association. Its runtime stands at 81 minutes, presented in Finnish with English subtitles. It deserves a full four stars out of four.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Film Review: ‘Fallen Leaves’ – Empathy

Q: Who is the director of the film “Fallen Leaves”?

A: The director of the film “Fallen Leaves” is Aki Kaurismäki, a Finnish filmmaker known for his deadpan storytelling style.

Q: What is the runtime of “Fallen Leaves”?

A: “Fallen Leaves” has a runtime of 81 minutes.

Q: What is the main theme of the film?

A: The main theme of “Fallen Leaves” revolves around the struggles of working-class individuals in harsh economic realities and their gradual connection in the face of adversity.

Q: Has the film received any awards or recognition?

A: Yes, “Fallen Leaves” won the jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival and was Finland’s submission for the Oscars.

Q: What language is the film in, and does it have English subtitles?

A: The film is in Finnish, and it is presented with English subtitles for international viewers.

Q: Can you describe the cinematography in the film?

A: The cinematography in “Fallen Leaves” is minimalistic yet poignant, with occasional bursts of color and irony, contributing to the film’s timeless quality.

Q: What is the central message or takeaway from “Fallen Leaves”?

A: “Fallen Leaves” explores themes of empathy and resilience in the face of challenging circumstances, portraying how individuals cope with harsh realities and find solace in unexpected places.

Q: Are there any notable characters in the film?

A: Yes, the film features characters like Holappa, a construction worker, and Ansa, a woman struggling to make ends meet, whose paths slowly converge in the story.

Q: How would you describe the overall tone of “Fallen Leaves”?

A: “Fallen Leaves” combines deadpan humor with profound empathy, offering a unique blend of humor and sensitivity in its storytelling.

More about Film Review: ‘Fallen Leaves’ – Empathy

  • Aki Kaurismäki – Learn more about the director of “Fallen Leaves.”
  • Cannes Film Festival – Explore the official website of the Cannes Film Festival where “Fallen Leaves” received the jury prize.
  • Finnish Cinema – Discover more about Finnish cinema and its unique contributions to the world of film.
  • Deadpan Humor – Learn about the concept of deadpan humor in film and literature.
  • Working-Class Struggles – Explore the challenges faced by working-class individuals in various societies.
  • Film Cinematography – Gain insights into the art and techniques of cinematography in filmmaking.
  • Empathy in Film – Read about the role of empathy in storytelling in cinema.
  • Cannes Jury Prize – Find information about the awards and recognition at the Cannes Film Festival.
  • Oscars Submission – Explore the official website of the Academy Awards to learn more about Finland’s submission for the Oscars.

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