Fallen Leaves movie review & film summary (2023)

This movie is set in our times, though like all of Kaurismäki’s films, it has an unusually retro mise-en-scene, apparent in even the teeniest design detail. Ansa’s radio has a circular analog dial on its face. While she does own a microwave, it’s the most basic box imaginable. A band shows up late in the movie, and one notes that In Kaurismäki’s world, the electric guitars all have single-coil pickups, never a humbucker. If you understand why this matters, you’re in tune with his aesthetic.

Ansa begins as a grocery store cashier whose soft heart gets her fired—she’s caught donating expired food to a hungry homeless man. A couple of her coworkers walk out with her. She first sees Jussi Vatanen’s lanky-of-frame-and-hair Holappa at a karaoke bar where his buddy Huotari (the droll Janne Hyytiäinen) tries to wow the ladies with his pipes, only to be informed that he’s too old-looking. Holappa doesn’t sing. Indeed, his preferred mode of being is inside a bottle or flask. But looking at Ansa sparks him up a little. Eventually, if he wants the emotional connection he seems to seek, he’ll have to make some choices as he drifts from job to job. In his depictions of soused fellows, Kaurismäki has never depicted an AA meeting, but he skirts pretty close to doing so here.

The key to this movie’s winning emotional delicacy is its formal sturdiness. Every shot has a specific job to do and does it well. The performances are measured and restrained. I used to say of the writer/director that he can really put the “dead” in “deadpan,” but the way he opens both his stories and performers to convey an unexpected, understated warmth is completely winning. As happens in Kaurismäki’s movies, the introduction of an enigmatic dog gives the movie a lift. Ansa initially calls the mutt “dog,” but at the movie’s honestly uplifting ending, she reveals a new name, one that bestows the film itself with its own best honorific. It’s too good a touch to spoil, so I won’t.

Now playing in theaters. 

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