Sunday 10 December 2023

Modern times: "Fallen Leaves"

Despite his glowing reputation on the arthouse circuit, Aki Kaurismäki now works so infrequently that - in the years that pass between films - one tends to forget the modest, reliable pleasures of this filmography: the droller-than-droll worldview, the often exquisitely gnomic dialogue (a brisk up-yours to every Sorkin who ever picked up a pen), the growing compassion for those left behind at the foot of the heap - a quality that has become only more cherishable in a world that now does so much to tamp us all down on a daily basis. Kaurismäki is that drinking companion you haven't seen for a while, the one who's been through hard times and stayed (sort of) merry: much like the conversation of old friends, each film picks up where the last left off. I mention alcohol, because it's been foundational to this worldview, whether as salve or crutch. The lovers in Kaurismäki's latest 
Fallen Leaves meet in a karaoke bar, though - in a typically Kaurismäkian touch - it's a karaoke bar where folks gather to sing Schubert laments rather than "Don't Stop Me Now". The illusion of being rockstars, even for one night, has mostly worn off; instead, punters come this way looking for consolation, distraction, maybe just a little warmth. In his day job, long-faced boozer Holappa (Jussi Vatanen) tends trucks, hoses and palettes in the type of nondescript industrial plant you glimpse all over Europe, trying to stay sober long enough to finance his next bottle of revivifying schnapps. In hers, meekly uncomplaining Ansa (Alma Pöysti, who played Tove Jansson in 2020's Tove) has the task of binning out-of-date food - until she gets binned, too, for passing on a few such freebies to a hungry colleague. Their haphazard courtship - hampered by his drinking and unreliability, and her low opinion of the opposite sex - is, then, not just a search for solace, but a show of solidarity. Fallen Leaves is the romantic comedy Ken Loach would have made if he'd been raised on the outskirts of Helsinki, drinking Finlandia rather than builders' tea.

Further pleasures reveal themselves: the stonefaced supporting cast, who dress and behave like walk-ons from a Lino Ventura vehicle of the early 1970s (and that's just the women); the modest digs and possessions, matched by Kaurismäki's (touching) faith in simple, 20th century film technique, the correspondence of shot to reverse shot; the gift for understatement. Emerging from a showing of Jim Jarmusch's The Dead Don't Die - one deadpan auteur tipping a hat to another - Ansa tells Holappa "I've never laughed so much". (Once would be enough, from the looks of her.) From its melodramatic title on down, Fallen Leaves confirms Kaurismäki as a filmmaker out of time - possibly the last silent filmmaker standing in 2023. (No-one else would have thought to call a film The Match Factory Girl in 1990.) These characters remain terse, so the images are called upon to speak up: a scrap of paper blown away by fate so as to keep the lovers apart, a ring of discarded cigarette butts happened across as proof of life. Some are among the loveliest images we'll see in 2023, like Ansa preparing for a dinner date by purchasing precisely one extra plate, knife and fork. (Nothing too ambitious; just the basic provision of care.) In relative poverty, Kaurismäki locates the poetry, even - dare I say it - some small measure of hope. And in just 81 minutes, he achieves, with seemingly minimal effort, the kind of worldbuilding certain American directors make such an almighty fuss about, sketching in and showing us around a cold, tough, hard-working place where you have to take your pleasures where you can. It is recognisably Kaurismäki's world - tessellating squarely with that of 2011's Le Havre, for example - but it is also our world, an idea conveyed by the many analogue radios onscreen broadcasting news of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (For Finland, too, shares a border with Russia: gather ye rosebuds and man the watchtowers.) As ever, you don't go to an Aki Kaurismäki movie for thigh-slapping guffaws, rather a steady supply of wry chuckles - but Fallen Leaves has more of these than most Kaurismäkis, and something more potent and rewarding besides. It is, I think, a profound understanding of how hard it is to get by, let alone find joy, at a moment in history when there are forces in play that actively seek to shoot down and crush any happiness. Confronted with the ever-encroaching and apparently incontrovertible sadnesses of this world, Kaurismäki has realised mere melancholy might well be met as a wealth to be shared. Join me in raising a half-empty glass to that.

Fallen Leaves is now playing in selected cinemas.

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