Kuolleet lehdet Review
Whether out of ideology or genuine fondness, the Cannes festival invariably invites ‘humanist’ filmmakers like Ken Loach, the Dardenne brothers, and Aki Kaurismäki, bringing to the screen working-class, marginalised, down-and-out characters trying to make it in a hostile (capitalist) world which has little time for losers. But while Loach and the Dardenne often opt for cinematic manifestos, Kaurismäki creates retro universes stuck in the 1970s, inhabited by self-deprecating outcasts oblivious to the ‘modern’ world around them. Kaurismäki’s cinema outclasses that of Loach and Darndenne precisely because he chooses comedy instead of preachiness, unapologetic over-the-top stylisation instead of realism.
Kuolleet lehdet (Fallen Leaves) is an old-school love story set against the backdrop of alcoholism and the war in Ukraine. In a Helsinki resurrected from the 1970s, two lonely marginal characters, Ansa (Alma Pöysti) a supermarket shelf stocker and Holappa (Jussi Vatanen) an alcoholic construction worker meet by chance in a dingy karaoke bar frequented by miserable, outlandish outcasts. Both are so shy they barely manage to make eye contact. But they are also so lonely, with nothing to lose and the wheels of a good old-fashioned romance are set in motion. They meet again by chance after the pub, where Ansa has started work following her firing from the supermarket, is raided by police. Holappa who is still employed treats penniless Ansa to a coffee and cake, and then a movie. Later on, he will get the sack and she will cook him a modest dinner with a mini bottle of sparking wine for two -one of the most poignant scenes, but also a very poetic and delicate way for Kaurismäki to film the impact of poverty on romance. In the meantime, in a Chaplinesque fumble, Holappa loses the piece of paper on which she has written her number (she has a first generation Nokia, while he does not own a mobile phone). The writer-director is, however, paternally fond of this hapless duo so rest assured they will meet again.
Preposterous at times (Holappa is so happy about being given a second chance that he does not notice a passing train and ends up in a coma), the storyline nevertheless works because Kaurismäki deliberately eschews realism and openly acknowledges the influence of Chaplin. The mise-en-scene is highly stylised, shot in saturated autumnal colours, with only a couple of scenes of ‘modern’-looking and -sounding extras. If you could smell this film, it would probably have the odour of a old person’s musty wardrobe. This is the year 2022 (or maybe even 2024 according to a wall calendar in one scene) and yet Ansa gets news of the war in Ukraine on a 1970s transistor radio. But the hermetic outdatedness of the characters and their setting so suck in the viewer that it is almost shocking to see Ansa use the internet (10 euro for half an hour! which she doesn’t have so she pays 8).
Kuolleet lehdet is a film of limited dialogue, and what dialogue there is basic and sparingly used. Perhaps it is partially a cultural peculiarity? Maybe in Finland it is normal for two strangers who speak for the first time to exchange the following: “Do you want to have a coffee?”, “Yes. But I have no money”? Ansa in particular is a simple character and it is not really possible for the viewer to gauge whether she possesses any intellectual depth, inner life, complexity, etc. With a mixture of world-weariness and childlike escapism, she consistently blocks out news of the Ukraine war regularly broadcast on her vintage transistor radio. If she cannot hear it, it is not happening (except that Kaurismäki intends otherwise – the war’s presence is a major narrative thread for him and the reason for the importance of the antidote of love). But that is beside the point – Ansa’s simplicity, genuineness and kind-heartedness are what the director wants the audience to fall in love with. Holappa is depicted with greater detail, as conflicted in his love for the vodka bottle and his newfound interest in another human, perhaps a personification of director Kaurismäki self-professed relationship with alcohol. It sounds cliché, but Ansa and Holappa are the most genuine, sincere, self-evident characters in this year’s competition (along with perhaps Hirayama in Perfect Days). There is not a single false note in their tenacious attempts at happiness in a world that has little heed for them.
Kuolleet lehdet is a lesson in how to win the Jury Prize with basic dialogue, a trite love story, and simplistic characters. For while on paper it may be all of the above, the magic of cinema operates on visceral, subliminal levels. It is not necessarily possible to explain why and how an ostensibly simple, borderline absurd film finds its way into the audience’s heart and makes us root for the two down-and-out Helsinki losers. But it is a sign of sincere, assured filmmaking that Kuolleet lehdet manages to do that. In the words of jury president Östlund, a film should make you feel, not analyse. On that count, Kuolleet lehdet fully deserves its prize.