‘Fallen Leaves’ Review: Deadpan Comedy Brings Heart and Wit to a Tale of Lost Souls

Cannes 2023: Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki has complete control of a delicate tone that could easily go awry

Fallen Leaves
Cannes Film Festival

Humor, it seems, has returned to the Main Competition at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. After a few days of mostly serious dramas about Nazis and terrorists and sweatshops, a lighter touch has emerged from a couple of expected sources: first Todd Haynes, a filmmaker with a great range but also a real touch for pulpy material that he shows in “May December,” and now Aki Kaurismäki, the Finnish master of comedy so deadpan that it can take an audience half the movie to figure out that it’s OK to laugh.  

They figured it out when Kaurismaki’s “Fallen Leaves” premiered in Cannes on Monday. With a brisk one-hour-and-21-minute running time, the film is a wry delight whose very restraint is part of the joke. Jonathan Glazer’s Cannes standout “The Zone of Interest” might be a movie without a single closeup, but “Fallen Leaves” is pretty much a movie without a single facial expression, except for a couple of half-smiles at the very end. (Other than rigor, the two movies have nothing in common.)

“Fallen Leaves” is the first movie Kaurismaki has made since 2017’s “The Other Side of Hope” – which was, he said at the time, the last movie he would ever make. And if it’s odd that it’s the first movie after his last movie, the Cannes program says that it’s also the fourth part of a working-class trilogy (“Shadows in Paradise,” “Ariel” and “The Match Factory”) that he made three decades ago. 

Ansa (Alma Pöysti) works in a supermarket, at least until she’s fired for taking home a sandwich with an expired sell-by date. Holappa (Jussi Vatanen) is a construction worker who keeps getting canned for drinking on the job. Their lives are desultory in the extreme, as they trudge through a Helsinki landscape littered with lost souls with not much to look forward to beyond the nightly trip to the bar.

The men at the center of the film, for the most part, stand stiffly, smoke cigarettes with a studied slouch and seem as if they’re all unknowingly auditioning for a Jean-Pierre Melville movie; the women are equally expressionless, their faces as blank as their opportunities. (One would-be lothario refers to them as “dames, skirts, Sheilas…”, but there are no femme fatales on these particular mean streets.) 

In the bars – and there are a lot of bars in “Fallen Leaves” – all the patrons seem to be background players in various noir films of more recent vintage, no traces of joy or pleasure crossing their grizzled faces.

But all this studied hopelessness can’t help but be amusing, particularly when conversations always seem to happen in front of posters for hard-boiled classics like “Fat City,” “Rocco and His Brothers” and “Pierrot le Fou.” Kaurismäki knowingly riffs on cinema, has fun with tropes and tosses out delicious name-checks: When Holappa and Ansa go to the movies on their first real date and see Jim Jarmusch’s nouveau zombie flick “The Dead Don’t Die,” the first patron out of the theater turns to his buddy and says, “Great film. Reminded me of Bresson’s ‘Diary of a Country Priest’.” His friend replies, “I was thinking of Godard’s ‘Bande à part.’” (This is almost certainly the first time “The Dead Don’t Die,” which opened Cannes four years ago, has been compared to either of those films.)

“Fallen Leaves” is set in a landscape where everybody is either too depressed or too cool to crack a smile or show any energy. (“Tough guys don’t sing,” says Holappa when invited to Friday night Karaoke.) But this is where Ansa and Holappa stage a desultory courtship that is initially stalled by a lost address and the fact that they don’t know each other’s names, and later by a drinking problem and a coma. 

The themes, though, are anything but frivolous — and every time somebody in the movie switches on a radio, which they do frequently, we hear news from the war in Ukraine. There’s an immediacy in Kaurismaki’s story of working-class castoffs, but its tragedy is filtered through a dry comedy that springs from the poses we learn to adopt in cinemas. 

Without doing any real emoting, Pöysti and Vatanen are expressive in their expressionlessness; you can drive a truck through their silences, but that doesn’t prevent you from knowing what they’re talking about. The movie gets funnier but also more touching, and by the end there’s a dog to cheer things up and, back in the bar, an anthem courtesy of a female duo that don’t change their expressions as they sing, “I was born in sorrow/Dressed in disillusion.” 

Throughout, Kaurismäki shows his usual complete control of a delicate tone that could easily go awry if it didn’t work so well.

Facial expressions? Who needs ’em, anyway?

Check out TheWrap’s Cannes magazine here and all of our Cannes 2023 coverage here.