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Sentimental but not soppy, 'Fallen Leaves' gives off the magic glow of a fable

Two lonely souls (Alma Pöysti and Jussi Vatanen) come together in <em>Fallen Leaves.</em>
Malla Hukkanen
Two lonely souls (Alma Pöysti and Jussi Vatanen) come together in Fallen Leaves.

Most filmmakers take time to discover their artistic identity. But there are a few — like Jean-Luc Godard, Wong Kar Wai and Wes Anderson — who seem to have popped from the womb knowing exactly the kind of films they were born to make. Their vision is so distinctive that, from the very beginning, every frame of their work bears their signature.

One of this handful is Aki Kaurismäki, the 66-year-old Finnish director who may be the world's great master of cinematic terseness — he believes that no movie should ever be over an hour and a half. Ever since he emerged four decades ago with a terrific adaptation of Crime and Punishment — it ran a whopping 93 minutes — Kaurismäki has been creating taut, funny, quietly poetic movies that usually start off doleful and wind up heartening.

A nice example is his latest, Fallen Leaves, which the international film critics group FIPRESCIvoted the best film of 2023. Clocking in at a commendable 81 minutes, it tells a simple story that gives off the magic glow of a fable.

Set in present day Helsinki, Fallen Leaves is a melancholy romantic comedy about two lonely souls who sleepwalk through life doing dead-end jobs. A wonderful Alma Pöysti stars as the soulful Ansa, a 40-ish woman who earns minimum wage at a supermarket that treats its employees as if they were thieves.

Ansa returns home every night to her flat where the radio plays either dire news from Ukraine or pop songs that suggest a richer and more expressive world than her own. These same messages of misery and escape are simultaneously being heard by Holappa (Jussi Vatanen) a middle-aged construction worker whose depressive boozing gets him bounced from job to job.

The two first meet each other at a karaoke bar that could come from a David Lynch film. Eventually, they go out — fittingly, to a zombie movie — and although they barely speak, they click. But it's not clear that they can make it work. Ansa doesn't like drunks — her dad and brother were alcoholics — while Holappa never met a glass he didn't finish. Naturally, she's put off by his almost self-righteous boozing. When her friend Liisa declares, "All men are swine," Ansa disagrees. "Swine," she says, "are intelligent and sympathetic."

Now, the risk of making movies with an unmistakable stylistic signature is that audiences start finding them redundant. I've sometimes felt that way about Kaurismäki whose movies — with their hard-drinking loners and art-directed doldrums — have a sameness that can make it feel like he's phoning it in. Happily, he's fully engaged in Fallen Leaves, a sentimental tale saved from soppiness by its rigorously dry style.

Like his cinematic hero Robert Bresson, Kaurismäki cuts to the essence of things with crisply straightforward shots, intensified color schemes, and editing so tight you could dance to its rhythms. There's not an ounce of fat in Fallen Leaves, whose deadpan one-liners have the droll precision of Samuel Beckett, and whose acting is deliberately low key. Without ever doing anything that feels like emoting, Vatanen and Pöysti forge a romantic connection that, for all of Kaurismäki's irony, the film respects.

Early in his career, Kaurismäki's work was too eagerly hipsterish, as if he wanted to be known as the world's coolest Finn. Over the years, his work has become inspired by something more humane — a big-hearted sympathy for the unfortunate and the forgotten, be they the unemployed couple in the film Drifting Clouds or the undocumented African immigrants in Le Havre. While Fallen Leaves is nobody's idea of a political movie, it pointedly captures the bullied, soul-killing tedium of the work done by the millions and millions of Ansas and Holappas, the fallen leaves of a society who are swirled by the winds of fate.

Where those winds carry Ansa and Holappa I won't reveal. But I will say that their story builds to a gorgeous ending with a great and revelatory final joke. Fallen Leaves is not a big movie, but then again, bigness is beside the point. While the film may be small, Kaurismäki understands that his characters' yearning for love is not.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.