There’s a detail in Aki Kaurismaki’s brilliant new gem of a comedy, “Fallen Leaves,” that I didn’t notice — even after two viewings — until one of its stars pointed it out to me. When the heroine goes to work as a dishwasher at a dingy Helsinki bar, there’s a shot of an oversize calendar. The year is 2024. “This is actually, you know, like a sci-fi film,” the actor Jussi Vatanen told me in a video call.
As absurd as it sounds, there’s truth in that statement. The carefully constructed, dry-as-a-bone romantic comedy (in theaters now) technically takes place in the future. However, if you didn’t notice the calendar, you might assume it’s a period piece — one from the 1980s perhaps, given the clothing and décor — except for the fact that the radio is broadcasting reports from the ongoing war in Ukraine.
It’s all a bit disorienting, but it’s also part of the magic of the latest from the Finnish master. Alma Poysti, the other star of the new film, described “Fallen Leaves” as something out of a “fairy tale,” adding, “He probably suggests to throw logic out of the window.”
Perhaps one reason I’m so taken with “Fallen Leaves” is that it does feel like an uplifting fairy tale despite the despair that initially surrounds the characters. It’s a love story with a happy ending — and a cute dog to boot — that nonetheless throws together two people whose loneliness is palpable, who exist in an unforgiving world, where work and joy is often scarce. To love “Fallen Leaves” is to submit to the often hilarious deadpan rhythms that are characteristic of Kaurismaki’s work but also to its unrepentant optimism.
At a moment in the release calendar when seeing a quote-unquote serious film often requires wrestling with humanity’s ills, “Fallen Leaves” is a rom-com from a great auteur that, in its brief run time, offers a balm for dark times. It’s not frivolous, but at the same time it’s genuinely heartwarming.
Kaurismaki has called “Fallen Leaves” a lost installment of what is known as his “Proletariat” trilogy: three films released in Finland between 1986 and 1990. Like “Fallen Leaves,” these relatively short works are all stories about people on the margins.
This latest finds its two solitary protagonists in Ansa (Poysti), who stocks the aisles of a coldly lit grocery store, and Holappa (Vatanen), who works on a construction site and dulls his pain with alcohol. Their eyes first meet, briefly but intensely, at a karaoke bar. He’s been dragged there by a bombastic friend, even though he would prefer to be reading comics alone. “I remember in the script it said that the gaze is upsetting Holappa so much that he needs to go out for a smoke because he can’t handle it,” Poysti said, adding, “It’s this kind of electric moment.”
Their paths continue to collide across Helsinki — she finds him passed out at a bus station one night — before they finally make tentative moves toward a true introduction. A coffee date turns into an evening-long excursion to see a film. (Cheekily, it’s Jim Jarmusch’s zombie flick “The Dead Don’t Die,” a nod from one art-house hero to another.)
And yet the path to romance is not easy. Some of the obstacles seem to emerge from the most conventional rom-com tropes. Holappa immediately loses Ansa’s phone number, for instance, when he reaches into his pocket for a cigarette and the slip of paper blows away. Other impediments are deeper and more painful. Though she is infatuated with him, Ansa is wary of Holappa’s dependence on alcohol, and refuses to allow herself to come second to his addiction — she’s been through that before with her father and her brother.
Still, without spoiling too much, this is not a dour exploration of love lost. In fact, by the end it’s downright life-affirming. And, yes, at some point during the saga, Ansa takes in an adorable stray dog, played by Kaurismaki’s real life pup, Alma. Even if it doesn’t work out between her and Holappa, at least she’ll have a companion. The dog is an immediate comfort, settling in next to Ansa on her twin bed.
In interviews, Poysti and Vatanen explained how unusual a Kaurismaki set is. He doesn’t want his actors to rehearse by themselves, and he usually does only one take. If they mess up, they get a second go. Only a disaster would prompt a third. Even the pooch would typically hit her mark, Poysti explained: “She’s got intuition.”
It would be tempting to view the frames Kaurismaki creates as almost too exacting, since he does construct this world with a painterly quality. At the karaoke establishment, there are beats when it seems as if the bartender and the other patrons are frozen while the singers perform. An absent-minded swig of beer breaks the spell. But there’s also an energy to this precision, especially when Ansa and Holappa are interacting. You feel the expectant tension between them, this flicker of hope for two souls resigned to the idea of being forever lonely.
It’s reflective of the anxiousness felt by the performers — both Kaurismaki newcomers, children of the digital age being captured on 35-millimeter film.
“There is this sort of sense of nervousness, and you can’t be very prepared,” Vatanen said. “So you have to be very present in that moment.”
Poysti agreed that there was something terrifying about the experience initially, but that subsided when she realized what Kaurismaki was making. “It’s so precious and fragile and honest, and as soon as you repeat it, you have to start faking it a little bit,” she said. “So if you can avoid it then you will find something very, very honest and rare and beautiful, so you start to get kicks from it and you start to love it.”
And it’s not as if Kaurismaki isn’t playful. For one musical sequence, he recruited the impossibly cool modern Finnish duo Maustetytot, whose name translates to “spice girls” and who perform a song with the lyric “I like you but can’t stand myself.” The jokes elicit chuckles even if the characters barely crack a smile; Poysti said there were some moments when she had trouble not breaking. After a rough patch for Ansa and Holappa, Ansa’s friend declares that “all men are swine.” Ansa shoots back: “They’re not. Swines are intelligent and sympathetic.”
That humor in the face of desperation, which ultimately leads to an ending that is as tender as any Hollywood rom-com, is why “Fallen Leaves” feels like such a gift. Poysti said she believed that Ansa and Holappa were going to be all right as they walk off into the future, a little battered but together.
“I think,” she said, “throughout the film, there is a sense that caring for each other is a counter force for cynicism, and as long as you care for each other, then you have strengths and you have some power in life.”
And that is timeless — no matter the year on the calendar.