M, 81 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

It’s not yet winter in this new film from Finland, but a chill in the air has you reaching for an extra layer of clothing. There seems little warmth or connection between people by way of compensation either, especially in the lives of the odd couple that Aki Kaurismaki introduces us to in his latest film.

Is it full disclosure to mention that the celebrated filmmaker hasn’t lived in his homeland for ages? It probably is. He left for Portugal decades ago and still, as far as I can tell, lives there in preference to the little country that is squeezed between Sweden and Russia.

The couple who get together in this deadpan comic romance are odd indeed, and not-so-young-either. Ansa (Alma Poysti) is having a jolly time at work in a supermarket, stacking and clearing the shelves and manning the checkout under the penetrating gaze of the store’s security officer. When she manages to stash a sandwich past its use-by date in her handbag, she is fired.

Holappa (Jussi Vatanen) works in the building industry, living in bunk accommodation provided by his employer. There are several scenes including foreign workers that reminded me of the support Kaurismaki has expressed for people from the Middle East who make their way to his northerly homeland in search of new life opportunities and political freedom. Themes he focussed on in Le Havre and The Other Side of Hope.

Stuck in mind-numbing work, the listless Ansa and Holappa are alive but only just. Kaurismaki is kind and respectful to his characters, but it was hard not to identify their lack of vitality with the state of the zombies in the movie, The Dead Don’t Die, they go along to see on a date. It’s one from the filmmaker’s good friend, Jim Jarmusch.

Even when someone is looking, he doesn’t mind, taking a swig from his flask of vodka

When Holappa thinks no one is looking, and even when he seems to not much mind if anyone is, he takes a swig from his flask of vodka. He is fired too, though like Ansa, he is able to pick another job up relatively quickly. Kaurismaki is comfortable leaving us with an overriding impression of Helsinki as a place of construction work and shopping malls, but a lot of the action here accretes around cinema.

Ansa lives near The Ritz, a kind of cinematheque with an important function in the plot. When the couple actually talk face-to-face for the first time, after eyeing each other off at a karaoke bar and crossing paths while Holappa is passed out drunk on a bench, Ansa gives him her phone number. No names are exchanged, and Holappa, predictably, loses the slip of paper. But the cinema that features New Wave and indie classics of the 60s, facilitates them meeting again.

Standing outside one evening, Holappa is hoping to bump into Ansa again. It doesn’t happen that night but he smokes his way through most of a pack of cigarettes, leaving a pile of stubs that give him away. That’s his other addiction, yet it is the alcoholism to which she objects, and something for them to work through. The relationship between Kaurismaki himself and vodka is, apparently, something he has not striven to conceal, though it seems that intoxication has been tolerated in Finnish culture more than elsewhere.

It’s hard to see how the odd couple could ever get it together and yet, weirdly, it seems they do

Ever since Leningrad Cowboys Go America, the film about a band of Russian rockers with outstanding, upstanding quiffs and a pretty terrible sound, first brought Kaurismaki to my attention, I’ve kept an eye out for his quirky take on life. As usual with this writer-director, politics has never been far away, even during the total hoot that was Leningrad Cowboys.

Every time the radio comes on in Fallen Leaves, we hear grim news of the current war in Ukraine. It seems to be set in 2022, before Finland became NATO’s newest member state, yet there is a calendar up on the wall for 2024, and there are rotary dial models rather than mobile phones. All playful anachronisms, meant to confound us.

It’s hard to see how these two people who live alone and work alone could ever manage to get together. Yet it’s not Ansa and Hopalla who are the oddball couple, in need of some kind of rehabilitation to fit in, it’s the society around them that’s weird. This new Kaurismaki is another shaggy dog tale for the times.

First published in the Canberra Times.   Also published on Rotten Tomatoes