‘Fallen Leaves’ Review: A Diverting Love Story With Some Depth

The Finnish Oscar entry has an obvious love for the movies, with references aplenty and a genuinely sweet romance at its core.

Alma Pöysti and Jussi Vatanen in Fallen Leaves. Courtesy of Sputnik

Wearing its references (if not its heart) on its sleeve, Finnish Oscar entry Fallen Leaves is a slight slice-of-life romance with more than enough deadpan charm to buoy its 81-minute runtime. Filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki crafts a simultaneously dour and colorful Helsinki, a place where two downtrodden individuals struggling as members of the working class can somehow meet and embark on a romance fit for an artsy Italian movie from 60 years ago—sort of.

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FALLEN LEAVES ★★★ (3/4 stars)
Directed by: Aki Kaurismäki
Written by: Aki Kaurismäki
Starring: Alma Pöysti, Jussi Vatanen
Running time: 81 mins.

Alma Pöysti stars as Ansa (in a Golden Globe nominated performance), a lowly and lonely grocery store worker. She has a bright and cheery apartment, but piling electric bills and exactly enough tableware and utensils for one person. One night, at a bar, she encounters Holappa (Jussi Vatanen), a man who drinks on the job at a local metal yard. Though they don’t know each other’s names (and won’t for quite some time), a spark flares between the two, and even lost phone numbers, alcoholism, and questionable public transit systems can’t get in their way.

Fallen Leaves touches on plenty of issues, but the deadpan style that characters and the camera greet every change with makes it all quite darkly delightful. Holappa’s co-worker (Janne Hyytiäinen, a scene-stealing karaoke king) chastises him for smoking; Holappa says the black lung from their place of employment will likely get him first. Ansa gets fired for taking expired food home with her, courtesy of a solidly, ironically intense grocery store security guard. Kaurismäki centers the working class experience in all of its everyday absurdity, and Pöysti and Vatanen’s delivery add to that sense tenfold.

Alma Pöysti and Jussi Vatanen in Fallen Leaves. Courtesy of Sputnik

While that’s fun, one of the biggest joys of the film is its affinity for, well, film. From omnipresent movie posters to a date at a theater, Fallen Leaves has a dear love for its cinematic predecessors and compatriots. Godard, Bresson, and Jarmusch are all invoked literally, while the visuals are reminiscent of Fassbinder and the colors feel as rich as an Almodóvar film—even the dog Ansa takes in is named Chaplin! 

Kaurismäki packs his film with a fondness for a kind of sweeping European romance movie gone by, frequently bordering on parody but doing so with a clear affection. The increasingly on-the-nose love songs played from radios and at the local karaoke bar span several Romance languages, while the few moments of melodrama are met with a sudden soaring score. The old-fashioned sensibility and appreciation is balanced by droll comedy, making a movie that feels timeless.

It does take a bit of time to fully settle into Kaurismäki’s singular approach to filmmaking, steeped as it is in irony and angles. That said, Fallen Leaves stays in the same gear throughout, so it’s hard to get unmoored from things once you’re strapped in. The movie is altogether sweet and smart, a diverting little love story with a hint of social commentary.

Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.

‘Fallen Leaves’ Review: A Diverting Love Story With Some Depth