A pair of lonely hearts in Helsinki repeatedly cross paths in Fallen Leaves (amusingly titled Karaoke Blues in Czech), a enchanting fable from Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki that played this year’s Karlovy Vary International Film Festival after premiering in competition at Cannes. Like all of the director’s films, there’s a deadpan, droll artifice at play, but this one features a delightfully sweet-natured core that cuts the bitter presentation.
Fallen Leaves stars Jussi Vatanen as Holappa, a hopeless alcoholic and junkyard mechanic who passes his nights reading comic books. Alma Pöysti is Ansa, a lonely supermarket employee who cooks dinner for one and has to trash it after a microwave mishap.
Holappa and Ansa first meet after being dragged to karaoke night at a local bar by their friends Huotari (Janne Hyytiäinen) and Liisa (Nuppu Koivu); Huotari’s dramatic rendition of a Finnish national song makes for a amusing running gag. Throughout numerous personal and professional adventures, Holappa and Ansa will run into each other across Helsinki, and forge something like a relationship.
Fallen Leaves lives in a strange place of cinematic reference, pairing its somewhat simple romance with nods to silent comedy, the French New Wave, and contemporary arthouse films. Holappa takes Ansa to see Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die, of all films, and her logical reaction is priceless.
The classic posters that adorn the cinema’s entrance make for some great eye candy, and upon leaving, one patron compares the Jarmusch film to Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest. You’ll either be in on the joke or not; half of the audience at a screening in Karlovy Vary’s Grandhotel Pupp was sent into uproarious laughter.
Throughout Fallen Leaves, contemporary news from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine play out over the radio, adding a sense of here-and-now to what otherwise feels like a timeless fable. But even these are not spared Kaurismäki’s droll comic touch; used to underscore Holappa and Ansa’s sense of depression, war reports play out when Ansa tries to play some music to lighten the mood.
At just 81 minutes long and singularly focused on the relationship between Ansa and Holappa, Fallen Leaves may feel slight or insignificant to some, especially in the face of some of Kaurismäki’s more complex films like Le Havre or The Man Without a Past.
Despite being one of the most universally well-received films at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, picking up the competition’s Jury Prize, most reviews have been measured. But Fallen Leaves isn’t just a Kaurismäki bauble: it’s a genuinely affecting and occasionally uproarious crowd-pleaser that makes the most of its short running time, and rates among the director’s best films.