' ' Cinema Romantico: Fallen Leaves

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

Fallen Leaves

Running a mere 81 minutes with a plot that boils down to nothing more, really, than Boy Meets Girl, “Fallen Leaves” might sound slight. It is anything but. This is the fourth movie in what writer/director Aki Kaurismäki had intended as a trilogy, and though I have not seen the three other movies, a grievous oversight I intend to rectify in the new year, this fact suggests not merely something being left to say but a winnowing, a paring down of aesthetic and of theme. And that’s how “Fallen Leaves” feels, pared down to what I dare say feels like something close to perfection. In trimming so much narrative fat, Kaurismäki almost exclusively carves his movie out of details and gestures, and that trimming in tandem with so many static compositions essentially leaves nowhere for the emotion to hide, beaming it straight to us. “Fallen Leaves” is not telling a story, or even making a movie so much as transcribing the human condition to the screen.

Though there are all manner of anachronistic touches in “Fallen Leaves,” this is a movie of the present, with both Ansa (Alma Pöysti) and Holappa (Jussi Vatanen), two lonely souls in Helsinki, repeatedly tuning their radios to reports of next-door neighbor Russia’s war with Ukraine. The bigger problems of the world are not muted, then, even if smaller problems are what define existence. Life itself is tantamount to nothing more than a series of grim, low wage jobs. One shot of Holappa watching a cement mixer pour concrete becomes a diabolical twist on sand in an hourglass. Ansa is virtually reduced to a prisoner on the clock in her position stocking supermarket shelves, evoked in a series of increasingly closer close-ups of a security guard watching her. And when she is dismissed for taking expired food, she takes a stand, though it tellingly doesn’t ferment any kind of “Norma Rae” moment. It’s about maintaining self-worth, and like so much of the movie, feels as profound as it does pointless. When she gets another job, it’s washing dishes at a bar called California, a straight-faced sick joke on seeking your fortune.

All this is enough to drive a person to drink, and Holappa does, to excess, getting the heave-ho for drinking on his industrial job. Many scenes are set in bars and in Kaurismäki’s penchant for droll eye-level shots, everyone here, Holappa included, come across like the undead, driven by an endless procession of pint glasses to numb the pain. It’s appropriate, I guess, that after meeting in a karaoke bar, when Ansa and Holappa go to catch a movie, it is Jim Jarmusch’s zombie flick “The Dead Don’t Die,” in which the humans hardly seem to have more of a pulse than the flesh-eating reanimated they’re pursuing, one of several moments in which “Fallen Leaves” works in concert with various cinematic predecessors. Indeed, when Ansa and Holappa leave the show, she remarks she’s never laughed so hard, even though we never once heard her laughing. It’s like the bleak Nordic version of Frank Drebin and Jane Spencer seeing in “Platoon” in the “The Naked Gun.”

This is typical of the film’s deadpan humor, which is frequent, and frequently and unexpectedly knocks you hilariously sideways by the way it just sort of drops out of the sky, like the camera suddenly catching sight of Ansa in her California job with a Finnish variation of empty mugs accrued so high in her left arm that she appears to be a King’s Guard with a beer snake as rifle. And while there is something equally humorous in how Ansa has inherited her miniscule one-room apartment, as if this is “Under the Tuscan Sun” recast as Under the Finnish Clouds, that home is also infused with light and color. When she and Holappa have dinner, their clothes match the flowers. These are not just touches meant for the movie to counteract its multitudinous miserabilist tendencies, but for Ansa to counteract the miserabilist tendencies of the surrounding world. When she turns the radio dial from news of the war to love songs, it becomes a manifestation of her own mood, a glimpse of her pulsing soul underneath.

It’s a hair’s breadth between bleak and beautiful, in other words, and which the title suggests, and which the parallel episodes of the conclusion suggest too. Such a contrast isn’t anything original in and of itself, but it’s rarely felt so vibrant, and Kaurismäki both honors that familiarity with an ending straight out of Hollywood’s Golden Age, noted in one ostensibly throwaway reference. And if so much of “Fallen Leaves” is characters seeming to look just past the camera, as if staring into the abyss, as it ends, the camera finally switches, stretching out toward boundless possibilities. 

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