Finnish maestro Aki Kaurismaki’s ‘Fallen Leaves,’ a romantic comedy streaming on Mubi, illuminates the lives of two star-crossed lovers suffering the ravages of contemporary capitalism

Filmmakers being in conversation with each other’s works is natural, desirable and often, a lot of fun to watch. However, like any other literary/artistic device it runs the risk of rampant, commercialized overuse. In today’s franchise-led era it is used more often than not in service of a facile sense of continuity, of a ‘shared universe’ no matter what the artistic costs may be.

Luckily, in skilled hands, filmmakers having a sense of history still pays off handsomely — and no amount of mega-corporation productions can change that about the medium. I was reminded of this powerfully during a beautiful night-at-the-movies sequence in Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki’s latest, Fallen Leaves, now streaming in India on Mubi (and on Mubi’s channel on Amazon Prime Video). A deceptively straightforward romantic comedy involving star-crossed lovers, this is Kaurismaki’s 20th full-length feature, which won the Jury Prize last year at Cannes.

Lives under capitalism as zombie-existence

In the aforementioned movie-going sequence, our two protagonists — an alcoholic, melancholy man named Holappa (Jussi Vatanen) and an overworked, conscientious woman named Ansa (Alma Pöysti) — are at the movies. Until now we have only seen these two people suffering the ravages of contemporary capitalism.

He works a series of punishing, dead-end construction gigs while she works at a corrupt supermarket that routinely sells expired food to its customers. Finally, the two of them are given a moment of peace and levity at the movies — will they hit it off or will their baggage come in the way? (This is pretty much the entire plot of the film; Kaurismaki’s films defy conventional screenwriting expectations).

They watch The Dead Don’t Die, the 2019 absurdist zombie invasion comedy (starring Bill Murray and Adam Driver), directed by Kaurismaki’s old friend and artistic brother-in-arms, Jim Jarmusch. At the end of the film, Ansa says that she hasn’t laughed this much in ages. It’s a typically bittersweet moment from Kaurismaki, whose movies are full of mild-mannered stoics who tend to be better at endurance than they are at embracing hard-fought slivers of happiness.

Ansa’s encounter with vibrant, life-affirming colour comes in the second half, when she is wearing a lively turquoise overcoat while meeting Chaplin, a friendly, yellow-coloured dog she adopts — this is, significantly, one of the first moments we see Ansa smiling and relaxed.

The fact that she found the gory zombie invasion hilarious is part of the point — Kaurismaki and Jarmusch share a certain bleak flair for introducing absurdism into everyday situations. But what’s even more remarkable is the subtext and how well it blends in with the world these two people live in. Ansa and Holappa look at their own lives under modern-day capitalism as a kind of zombie-existence. This is signaled loud and clear throughout the film’s 80-minute runtime in a variety of ways.

Kaurismaki’s minimalist visual vocabulary

In an early scene, we see Holappa reluctantly getting ready for a night out in town — he checks out his own surly face in a shattered mirror, his reflection looking like something out of a Cubist portrait. In a later scene, Holappa is drunk and passed out on a bench at a bus stop, where a group of teenagers is rifling through his pockets, disappointed at the meagre results. Ansa quietly checks Holappa’s pulse, seats him upright on the bench so he doesn’t choke on his own vomit and then quietly leaves on the next bus.

This visual is one of the best and most poignant moments in the film — a barely-lit Ansa unsure whether to leave, looking at Holappa as the bus starts, inevitably, to move away from the scene-of-the-crime. This is the modern-day equivalent of a frequently-seen moment from films set in previous centuries; the farewell scene at the docks when one or more characters set sail for a foreign land.

In this case, of course, Ansa is going back home, which for her is every bit as ‘alien’ and unsettling, not least because she’s unsure of Holappa’s fate or indeed, whether they will meet again (by this point in the film, the two do not know each other’s names and have no way of contacting each other).

Kaurismaki’s visual style is spare and minimalist to the point of occasional stodginess when he’s not on his A-game. No such concerns for Fallen Leaves, however. This is his best film since his mid-career purple patch in the late 80s and early 90s, when he made such idiosyncratic masterpieces like Ariel (1988), Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989) and La Vie de bohème (1992). A close reading of Fallen Leaves reveals it to be a kind of culmination of several of Kaurismaki’s pet themes from this phase in his career.

The colour of hope

The most prominent among these themes and motifs, of course, is Kaurismaki’s clear-eyed, compassionate depiction of the life of proletarian characters, in films like Shadows in Paradise (1986) and The Match Factory Girl (1990). The latter, in particular, is a kind of spiritual predecessor, almost, to Fallen Leaves. Its protagonist Iris (Kati Outinen, one of the director’s frequent collaborators) is very much in the same mould as Ansa.

Both of them are quiet, unobtrusive young women working punishing jobs in a ‘post-industrial’ landscape. Both of them have rich inner lives that they keep well-hidden from the rest of the world. Besides, Iris and Ansa both share one very important feature that the two films take pains to highlight prominently — their relationship with loud, vibrant colours that stand in sharp contrast to their otherwise drab lives dominated by shades of grey.

Fifteen minutes into The Match Factory Girl, we see Iris wearing a bright pink dress that she clearly likes. Her mother reacts with inordinate anger, telling her that she looks like a prostitute but Iris refuses to listen and goes to a nightclub wearing the dress, a signal that she will live life on her own terms.

In Fallen Leaves, Ansa’s encounter with vibrant, life-affirming colour comes in the second half, when she is wearing a similarly lively turquoise overcoat while meeting Chaplin, a friendly, yellow-coloured dog she adopts — this is, significantly, one of the first moments we see Ansa smiling and relaxed. Colour bestowed upon these grayscale lives is Kaurismaki’s way of giving these characters hope.

For Kaurismaki fans, Fallen Leaves is the logical endpoint of some key storytelling strands from his career. And for newcomers it is the perfect introduction to the pleasures of this unique artist.

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