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'Fallen Leaves,' NYFF 2023
Jussi Vatanen, Alma Pöysti in 'Fallen Leaves,' (FLC Press)

New York Film Festival Review: ‘Fallen Leaves’

Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki (The Other Side of Hope) creates a romantic coupling in his droll and witty Fallen Leaves. Currently screening at the 61st New York Film Festival’s Main Slate, the film won the Jury Prize at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival.

Because the filmmaker approaches love from a quirky angle, with working-class heroes, the film’s unique characters engage us. Additionally, with his spare, realistic set design of lower middle class homes, bars and interiors, he reveals his political themes. Symbolically, unexpectedly, the cinematography reveals the sub rosa classism in Helinski.

Characters from the working classes

Initially, the director focuses our attention on Ansa (Alma Pöysti) who works at a dead-end job as a grocery clerk. In parallel, her future counterpart Holappa (Jussi Vatanen) works as a construction laborer. Their environs appear seedy, run-down and characterless. Also, their manner and behavior appears wooden, as if they merely go through the motions of existence.

As a contrast the director periodically includes aerial views of the bright lights of Helinski, a city evidently bustling with commerce, vibrance and energy. However, Ansa and Holappa don’t have the finances for these wealthier, beautiful settings. Tellingly, the filmmaker places them in dreary places that are dark and dingy with muted grey-blue lifeless colors. This is subtle, masterful artistic composition and scenic design.

Since Ansa and Holappa live paycheck to paycheck, they must toe the line with their bosses. yet both have a rebellious streak in, and resent being told what to do as automatons.


Thus, a security guard catches Ansa giving some meat to a man in obvious need instead of throwing out the day-old food. For his part, Holappa deadens himself to his boring job by drinking. As a result of their disobedience, their bosses fire them. To cheer themselves up, both go out with friends to a Karaoke bar. There, they lock eyes, and something clicks.

Kaurismäki humorously tweaks “love at first sight” memes. And when various characters sing at the microphone, the amateurs’ renditions produce hysterical results. This wacky place might be where love happens, after all.

Alma Pöysti, Jussi Vatanen in Fallen Leaves (FLC Press)

Somehow, Holappa gains the courage to ask Ansa to a movie. He makes an unexpected choice of films to see: The Dead Don’t Die (2019), a farcical zombie comedy. The pacing, from the couple’s locking eyes and meeting up to clips of Adam Driver and Bill Murray shooting zombies, produces more irony and hysteria. But when Holappa asks if Ansa liked the film, her favorable response and his asking her for another date suggests a future of hope and togetherness.

Brought together, then separated

However, the moment Ansa gives him her number, he loses it. Thus begin the fateful missed opportunities. Only until Ansa runs into him and pursues asking what happened, do they continue on their course – we think, to a solid relationship. Yet when he comes to dinner, he brings a flask and drinks after the meal, upsetting Ansa. Her father and brother died from alcoholism, and she firmly states that she won’t bury another alcoholic. Likewise, he won’t be commanded not to drink. Their relationship ends at this turning point.

With wit, humor and particularity Kaurismäki gradually brings them back together, but he accomplishes this with clever circularity. Of course, there is risk and danger. And there is a plot device in reverse from An Affair To Remember.

Fallen Leaves charms and delights. Also, its weighty themes about stereotypes, discrimination and autocratic systems that deaden hold currency and truth.

Finally, Ansa and Holappa come home to listen to the news.

Sound bytes of Putin’s war in Ukraine as commentary

The dire news is of Putin’s war of aggression against Ukraine. Kaurismäki includes sound bytes of the destruction of Mariupol, the butchery, deaths and missile attacks at the outset of the war. By including this information, the filmmaker reveals another oppression hanging over the lives of his Helsinkians. They know that Finland shares an 832-mile border with Russia. Thus, the news on their old-fashioned radios reminds them of the gift of living that many Ukrainians are losing. Their lives gain a new immediacy and urgency to love and appreciate what they have.

For tickets to see this Grand Jury winner at Cannes, go to the NYFF 2023 website.

About Carole Di Tosti

Carole Di Tosti, Ph.D. is a published writer, playwright, novelist, poet. She owns and manages three well-established blogs: 'The Fat and the Skinny,' 'All Along the NYC Skyline' ( 'A Christian Apologists' Sonnets.' She also manages the newly established 'Carole Di Tosti's Linchpin,' which is devoted to foreign theater reviews and guest reviews. She contributed articles to Technorati (310) on various trending topics from 2011-2013. To Blogcritics she has contributed 583+ reviews, interviews on films and theater predominately. Carole Di Tosti also has reviewed NYBG exhibits and wine events. She guest writes for 'Theater Pizzazz' and has contributed to 'T2Chronicles,' 'NY Theatre Wire' and other online publications. She covers NYC trending events and writes articles promoting advocacy. She professionally free-lanced for TMR and VERVE for 1 1/2 years. She was a former English Instructor. Her published dissertation is referenced in three books, two by Margo Ely, Ph.D. Her novel 'Peregrine: The Ceremony of Powers' will be on sale in January 2021. Her full length plays, 'Edgar,' 'The Painter on His Way to Work,' and 'Pandemics or How Maria Caught Her Vibe' are being submitted for representation and production.

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