FALLEN LEAVES, (Kuolleet lehdet)

"...one of the finest romantic films of the year"

A Proletariat Love Letter From Finland

(012524) Fallen Leaves is an unflinchingly bleak yet faintly hopeful and unexpectedly inspirational film. It’s a tender black comedy/romance about a pair of seemingly mismatched potential lovers. It is also one of the finest romantic films of the year, and only Past Lives was a slightly better effort.

Unlike most of the products of the assembly line, big budget Hollywood, this one is truly special with its own idiosyncratic style, and it could only have been made by its terrific Finnish film maker, Aki Karismaki who obviously and passionately believes that film culture still exists (maybe there is more of one in Finland.) He might well be best known for doing the wacky wonderful cult classic, Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989). He is generally considered to be the finest film maker to ever come out of Finland.

Fallen Leaves is Kaurismäki's 20th full-length film, and it continues his Proletariat series, which was originally planned as a trilogy and includes Shadows in Paradise (1986), Ariel (1988), and The Match Factory Girl (1990). All of the films in the series include the day-to-day struggles of its working-class outcast protagonists. The subject matter is like that of Italian Neorealists, only it is dealt with in a much more of a detached and ironic manner. Also, the Neorealists elevated their protagonists to noble, almost perfect saint like figures, the poor heroes here are much more flawed and even at times absurd perhaps a little closer to the types of people we see in some of Petro Germi’s Commedia D’Italiana films.

His newest film, Fallen Leaves, is one of the most internationally acclaimed films of the year, and it has racked up many awards and much critical praise. It was named best film of the year by Time Magazine, and it made the top ten lists of Cashiers Du Cinema, National Board of Review and earned the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. In addition, it was nominated for best international film and best actress in a musical/comedy (for Alma Post) in the Golden Globes. Plus, it currently has a 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes which is higher than
Barbie, Oppenheimer, Killers of the Flower Moon, Poor Things or Maestro.

Like many of Aki’s films this one deals with the impoverished lower class in Finland. And it sometimes makes you feel like you are watching people from a different planet. Everyone in the movie either talks in an emotionless dead pan voice or speaks ironically and they seem far closer culturally to Germans than Americans. The film also seems very Finnish or at least European because so many other European films much of the communication takes place outside of words through glances and other body language. American film makers often undervalue the importance of silence.

Like the previous films in the trilogy by Karismaki, it is set in the same place. The film takes place in a harsh region of Helsinki and most of the people have demoralizing jobs and struggle to keep above water on a day-to-day basis.

Ansa (well played by Alma Poysti) is a low-level grocery employee who is fired for taking home expired groceries that were supposed to be thrown away anyway to avert her hunger. (the firing scene was probably included by the socialist director Karismaki to show the contempt some in the managerial class have toward the workers). She soon finds another crummy job as a bartender, but she loses her job right away when her employer is imprisoned for selling drugs. No matter how hard she tries she can’t ever seem to get ahead and she has the worst imaginable luck.

Jussi Vatanen Is Holoppa, a man with a drinking problem who is fired from a construction job for drinking on the job. Hollopa first makes eye contact with Alma during karaoke at a local bar (although neither one sings) but nothing comes of it. They end up meeting again at a café and he ends up asking her out to a movie. The pair saw an unlikely first date film, the Jim Jarmusch horror flick, "The Dead Don’t Die" and they hit it off well initially. She gives him her number, but he accidentally loses the paper in the wind, and he never thought to ask her for her name. Later on, his excessive drinking creates problems in their budding relationship.

This is definitely a film made by a cinema lover for true film fans. The film has as many cinema allusions and homage's as a Tarantino flick but mostly highbrow art films (Tarantino mostly references genre films or cinematic trash.) Firstly, the film is shot at the same kind of slow pace as a Yasurio Ozo film, and it has the same kind of poetic beauty so it’s likely the title is meant to recall his films with seasonal titles such as Early Summer, Late Autumn and An Autumn Afternoon as well as Floating Weeds. It also has bits of dialogue such as “Only autumn thrives in your heart” that recall Ozu. Film fanatics may notice that the scene at the bus stop with its lush romantic setting and lovely string music recalls David Lean’s classic Brief Encounter (we also see a poster of the film in another scene). The gorgeous ending evokes the indescribably beautiful conclusion of City Lights and even includes a dog named Chaplin.

Fallen Leaves is also filled with constant little news clips of the Ukraine war. This serves to anchor the film in the present, which is a good thing because apparently nothing much has changed in the town for fifty years and the film could’ve easily taken place in the far past.

Fallen Leaves also features some terrific music that will be probably unfamiliar to most American ears. The band at the bar is the real world girl group Maustetytöt (a pop techno duo) and they play, “Syntynyt suruun ja Puettu Pettymyksin”, a wonderfully droll and dreary song with ringing guitar about death and suicide that helps to build up the gloomy background. The song perfectly captures the tone and situation in the film when in ironic contrast the upbeat music the vocalist sings the lyrics: “I was born in sorrow and clothed in disappointment/I am a prisoner here forever.” and the song also contains the line “Even the graveyard is by fences bound.”

But what most elevates the film is the fine, nuanced performance by Alma Poysti which is one of the year’s most memorable. She is perfectly convincing playing a woman who has such a terrible life that she will cling to any little glimmer of hope that any little thing that has any possibility of making her existence a little bit easier to bare (It is likely that even if they got together Jussi would be unlikely to win husband of the year.)

In a similar way this film provides a little hope that directors with a limited budget can somehow capture their own vision on celluloid in today’s ailing corporate film culture. More importantly, it also shows that a story filled with likeable losers that love can emerge even in the worst of circumstances when every door seems closed.

Directed & Written by:    Aki Kaurismaki
Starring:    Alma Poysti, Jussi Vatanen, Alina Tomnikov
Released:    02/1/2023 (USA)
Length:    81 minutes
Rating:    PG13 for action scenes
Available On:    At press time playing in limited release at several
 Chicago area theatres and streaming on MUBI
 and HBO Max

For more writings by Vittorio Carli go to www.artinterviews.org and www.chicagopoetry.org. His latest book "Tape Worm Salad with Olive Oil for Extra Flavor" is also available.

Mister Carli is going to speak about how the Frankenstein Monster has evolved in the media at Moraine Valley Community College in his upcoming lecture: “The Complete Character is Nowhere: The Evolution of Frankenstein and His Monster in Films, Comics and Songs”
This event is scheduled on Wednesday, March 6th, noon-12:50pm, at Moraine Valley Library Lounge (Building L).

Come to the New Poetry Show on the first Saturday of every month at Tangible Books in Bridgeport from 7-9 at 3324 South Halsted.
This is now a monthly show featuring Poetry/Spoken Word, some Music, Stand Up and Performance Art and hosted by Mister Carli. For more information e-mail: carlivit@gmail.com for details

Upcoming features at the Poetry Show:
February 3-Special Daley College Show featuring Ana Arredondo, Jeremy Basso, Christian Cofield, and Genesis Jiminez

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