It is perversely fitting that the Finnish director’s film wasn’t nominated for the Academy Award for Best International Feature.
Although Fallen Leaves is worthy of the honour, Kaurismäki’s entire career has been devoted to repudiating the kind of grand gestures that impress voters.
Like his most celebrated film Drifting Clouds from 1996 and the early Proletariat Trilogy, which the new film is intended to extend, Fallen Leaves focuses on the kind of people who rarely appear in mainstream films.
Downtrodden and depressed, supermarket stocker Ansa (Alma Pöysti) and construction worker Holappa (Jussi Vatanen) seem to be going through the motions of everyday existence from sheer inertia.
A sequence at the beginning of the film sets the tone.
Ansa arrives home after a long commute from her workplace. She pulls out a package of frozen food from her bag and puts it in the microwave oven. Then she sits down at the kitchen table to wait and turns on the radio.
A news station is on, reporting a Russian attack on a hospital in Mariupol, which is characterised as a potential war crime. After listening for a minute, Ansa switches to a music station, playing an old-fashioned ballad.
When the microwave dings, Ansa walks over to it and inspects the package of food. It looks a little overcooked. Disgruntled, she throws it in the trash and prepares for bed.
Did she lose her appetite because of the news?
Brief bursts of radio about the war in Ukraine intrude at various points in the picture, never rising about the level of background noise, part of the sonic mise-en-scène.
Words seem to cost the dour Ansa dearly. That’s why, when she later declares, “Bloody war!”, we feel intensely the cumulative impact of this steady diet of bad news.
Because Finland shares a long border with Russia, not to mention ceding the territory of Karelia to it, the threat posed by Vladimir Putin’s expansionist foreign policy feels more immediate than in Western Europe.
But the more we learn about Ansa and Holappa, the more apparent it becomes that there is a disconnect between their lives and those featured on the news
They aren’t being victimised like the civilians in Ukraine. Compared to the struggles faced by those living in a conflict zone or refugees fleeing from it, their suffering seems minor. And they know it.
That’s why they try to stoically dull the pain instead of complaining.
Ansa leans into the comfort provided by routine. Holappa drinks for the same reason. They go out to pubs with friends, where they listen to karaoke or a band.
Ever since his crossover hit Leningrad Cowboys Go America, Karuismäki has shown a flair for incorporating music into his films. Songs don’t just break up the story. They move it along, though not always in immediately obvious ways.
Whether it’s Holappa’s friend Huotari singing a traditional Finnish song at karaoke, the man who goes after him improbably giving a spot-on rendition of one of Franz Schubert’s Lieder from his Winter Journey, or the sisters in the indie band Maustetytöt darkly ironizing sisu, the lyrics communicate profound melancholy.
Although the music varies greatly, none fits into the global hits category. Indeed, were it not for the news broadcasts about Ukraine, it would almost be possible to imagine that Finland had been cut off from the rest of the world, turning it into a cultural island.
Just as Ansa and Holappa’s lives play out on a different plane than the events reported on the news, Finnish culture seems to come from a place outsiders overlook.
Or at least that would be the case if we didn’t have Fallen Leaves to remind us that it is worthy of our attention despite its relative insignificance.
The counterpoint to this narrow focus on Finland is cinema.
When Ansa and Holappa go on a date, it’s to see Jim Jarmusch’s zombie film The Dead Don’t Die.
Although Kaurismäki never strays far from the tale of two lonely, middle-aged people who improbably find each other, these cinematic references encourage us to appreciate the smallness of Fallen Leaves on an allegorical level as well.
A story with few characters, slow pacing, and nary an explosion or gunshot may seem hopelessly out of step with today’s global entertainment industry.
But those same qualities confer membership for Fallen Leaves in a cultural international, one where the names of great European directors and the American ones celebrated at places like the Cannes Film Festival forge a powerful bond.
In other words, just as Ansa and Hoappa find each other, so do the people who remain devoted to cinema meet their matches by seeking out films like Fallen Leaves.
The news still matters. We might not be able to stay tuned to it for very long, but we still must give it heed. But we also need to preserve a space in our minds for stories that don’t rise to that level.
Like the fallen leaves referenced in the film’s title, we can only appreciate them if we slow down and look closely. Otherwise, we will only see garbage to be swept up and thrown away.
Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.