Cannes 2023 Review: FALLEN LEAVES, Aki Kaurismäki's Deadpan Masterwork
Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki returns to the Cannes competition after 12 years with a superlative romantic comedy.
At a festival like Cannes, where films are over-burdened with importance, and profundity, and straining with every fiber of their being to be a masterpiece, it is entirely refreshing and disarming to encounter a film that’s modest, humble, and with effortless grace manages to be a masterwork.
That film this year is Aki Kaurismäki’s Fallen Leaves, competing for the coveted Palme d’Or.
Fallen Leaves has to be recognized for what it is. It is an inordinately tiny romantic comedy, taking place in a few simple settings, with just two main characters, not a lot of dialog, and just 81 minutes of runtime. That’s less than your average animated Hollywood blockbuster aimed at 3-year-olds. Yet within that runtime, Finnish master Kaurismäki manages to pack in as much yearning as is in classics like Chaplin’s City Lights and Pixar’s Wall-E.
In Fallen Leaves we follow our two leads, depressed, down-on-their-luck, minimum-wage, middle-aged workers Ansa (Alma Pöysti) and Holappa (Jussi Vatanen). She works in a grocery store where she sometimes steals expired food items. He’s an alcoholic construction worker who drinks on the job.
They briefly lock eyes in a karaoke dive bar and then go on with their lives. She gets fired for stealing an expired yogurt cup worth less than 50 cents. He gets fired when he gets injured at work because he was drunk. Both move on to other equally terrible jobs. Yet they keep encountering each other by chance.
Despite their circumstances, they are both luminescent, incandescent human beings, glowing with inherent decency that precludes any class labels. They are both still attractive, their eyes communicating oceans of mystery and feeling, and they seduce us into rooting for their maybe-romance. And worry not, Kaurismäki is right there to destroy the slightest hint of sentimentality that might creep into the picture.
In some ways, this is the anti-rom-com. Every sweet moment is quickly jettisoned, and every aww-moment is quickly diffused with something pungent. “Profound” dialog is anathema to Kaurismäki’s method, which favors impassive sobriety above all else.
Do not look for any outward displays of emotion in his film. He’s like his Nordic contemporary Roy Andersson in that regard. All actors are directed to be entirely poker-faced for the duration of the film, dispassionate, detached, and nearly robotic. And yet, you might catch yourself with a lump in your throat at the end of it all, willing with all your might for these two people to somehow end up together, for at least one ray of hope in this unfeeling universe.
There are plenty of laughs along the way in Fallen Leaves. The gala screening at Cannes was uproarious with the crowd bursting into laughter (and applause) at multiple points. Mind you, Fallen Leaves is not Bridesmaids, and the Cannes audience is decidedly rarefied. But there are promising prospects for Fallen Leaves’ distinctively Scandinavian brand of deadpan humor.
This gentle, humane comedy is overflowing with compassion and might find a game arthouse audience willing to give it a shot. Its prospects will certainly be helped with a big prize at Cannes, perhaps even the Palme d’Or, which it will richly deserve, not just because of Kaurismäki’s stellar legendary career but because this film earns it.
The work of Alma Pöysti and Jussi Vatanen as the maybe-couple goes a long way in giving the film its beating heart. They are able to beautifully delinate their characters within the confines of Kaurismäki’s sensibilities. Vatanen is especially effective as the charming drunk bum who makes an effortless claim for your sympathy. Janne Hyytiäinen is droll as Vatanen's co-worker/friend and brings the house down with his one-liners.
Fallen Leaves is imbued with extraordinary generosity of spirit, the kind that makes you believe, once again, in the possibility of goodness in this world.
Fallen Leaves premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival.