Fallen Leaves (2023, dir. Aki Kaurismäki) – BFI London Film Festival

by | Oct 4, 2023

Certificate: 12A

Running Time: 81 mins

UK Distributor: MUBI

UK Release Date: 1 December 2023

REVIEWED AT BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2023

WHO’S IN FALLEN LEAVES?

Alma Pöysti, Jussi Vatanen, Janne Hyytiäinen, Nuppu Koivu, Matti Onnismaa, Simon Al-Bazoon, Martti Suosalo, Alma-Koira, Sakari Kuosmanen, Maria Heiskanen, Alina Tomnikov, Maustetytöt

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Aki Kaurismäki (director, writer, producer), Misha Jaari and Mark Lwoff (producers), Timo Salminen (cinematographer), Samu Heikkilä (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

Two lonely people (Pöysti and Vatanen) meet by chance and develop an unusual relationship…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON FALLEN LEAVES?

It is quite possible that Fallen Leaves, the new film (and twentieth overall) by Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki, is the most MUBI movie to ever exist. I, of course, refer to the distinctive characteristics often occupied by films that are exclusively distributed through the high-brow streaming service – including, but not limited to, an arthouse-like décor, quirky deadpan humour, and a reserved state of emotion – all of which Fallen Leaves has in spades. It’s therefore not a surprise that MUBI is, indeed, the distributor behind this film, because never before has a film come along that matches their brand so ideally.

However, it’s also a rather odd film to have represent the MUBI brand, because while it more or less has its heart in the right place, it is both dry and understated to an absolute fault, in ways that won’t necessarily win over new converts to either the streaming service or its auteur filmmaker, but will almost certainly gain the approval of people who have already converted to both.

Set in Finland, we follow two strangers, connected by their loneliness and inability to fit in anywhere they go. First, there’s Ansa (Alma Pöysti), a woman who works a menial job at a local supermarket, and lives alone in her small apartment with few close friends to speak of. Then, there’s Holappa (Jussi Vatanen), a construction worker who has no other home than the small bed on the worksite, and often spends his nights fuelling his functional alcoholism at local bars. Both of them soon cross paths, and they attempt to form a connection with one another to fill the empty void in their lives, only for their bad habits to get in the way of what could so easily be a happy ending for either lonely soul.

Described as a tragi-comedy by official sources, Fallen Leaves is more of a deadpan pastiche of the typical romantic-comedy template, which the film executes with unique but baffling results. It is a film where characters will stand firmly in place and deliver the straightforward dialogue with a decisive monotone, like they’re aliens trying to learn the customs and regulations of humanity. You’ll also have scenes wherein extras will just be doing nothing while the action happens around them, which does make it a little eerie, even when the overall vibe of the scene is already pretty strange. Kaurismäki (a filmmaker that, I confess, I’m not all that familiar with) mixes all of that in with a rather basic rom-com formula, which in a way does make it a bit more amusing as you’re watching such odd and restrained behaviour happening within a film that is supposed to elicit a number of passionate feelings and emotions.

That being said, it still needs to engage as a film in its own right, and that is easier said than done. It is a film that clearly wants to wear its sweetness on its sleeve, especially in how Kaurismäki (also the writer) portrays the sheer isolation in which both of his main characters seem to have holed themselves up in. When the two of them share scenes, it is more often than not comforting to see them branch out beyond their own restrictions and try to make a meaningful connection, from a mere coffee date to a trip to the cinema (where they’re showing, of all things, Jim Jarmusch’s similarly deadpan zombie movie The Dead Don’t Die). The problem is, because the film is so monotonous in its delivery and dry in its overall execution, it’s hard to truly get a gauge on what these characters are meant to be thinking, which even the fine efforts of actors Alma Pöysti and Jussi Vatanen struggle to convey because, again, they’re directed to be emotionless vessels saying extremely articulate dialogue.

After a while, it starts to become tedious and even tiresome, as it is set to a flat pace that somehow makes this 81-minute film feel at least twenty minutes longer. You can see what Kaurismäki is trying to accomplish, including some of the influences that he is clearly working with (the final shot of the film directly references a Charlie Chaplin classic), but his execution tends to be alienating for viewers expecting a bit more passion or one or two more emotions on display. It’s a shame that it doesn’t entirely work, because it’s certainly got a good heart as well as an underlying sweetness, much of which is unfortunately drowned out by a vision that is almost irresponsibly dry and struggles to maintain a connection with those unfamiliar with similarly deadpan European cinema.

Those who know what they’re getting into, though, will probably appreciate Fallen Leaves a bit more than I did, but at least it is somewhere like MUBI, where a film like this should feel very much at home.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Fallen Leaves is a Finnish pastiche of the typical rom-com template that’s certainly sweet-natured but dry as a desert, thanks to filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki’s overwhelmingly deadpan style that alienates the viewer rather than forms a truly meaningful connection with them.

Three out of five stars

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