Aki Kaurismäki, the deadpan cockeyed minimalist of Finland, has become the ultimate illustration of the principle that if you make movies in the same mood and style, with the same monosyllabic bombed-out hipster vibe, for a period of 30 years, your movies may not have changed — but the world around them has, so the films will have a totally different effect.
In “Fallen Leaves,” the Kaurismäki bauble that’s showing at Cannes this year, there’s actually a scene in which a character uses a computer. The film’s heroine, Ansa (Alma Pöysti), loses her job as a supermarket worker, and to find another gig she rents an HP laptop at a makeshift Internet café that charges 10 Euro for half an hour. Apart from that, the movie unfolds in that scruffy and sparsely decorated so-familiar-it’s-cozy pre-tech Kaurismäki zone, where people still use electric adding machines or listen to a bulky kitchen radio that looks like it’s from the early ’60s. “Fallen Leaves” is set in Helsinki, the capital of Finland, but to our eyes it’s a weirdly underpopulated place where shopping, as a pastime, doesn’t exist, and neither, in any meaningful way, does conversation.
“Let’s go to karaoke,” says a burly construction worker to Holappa (Jussi Vatanen), the film’s tall, taciturn, and functionally drunk romantic co-protagonist. “Tough guys don’t sing,” he replies. A funny line, in that gnomic what-are-they-going-to-blurt-out-next? Kaurismäki way (though the film could have used more of those lines). The two then head over to the California Pub, a bar that’s like something out of East Berlin in the ’70s with less mood lighting, and it’s there that Holappa meets Ansa. The two are drawn to each other, but in such a shy, recessive, shaggy-working-class-drone-with-nothing-to-say way that their shambling courtship makes “Marty” look like “The Philadelphia Story.”
How do we know that Ansa and Holappa are going to get together? Because they have matching auras of dour repressed sweetness. Because both actors look like lumpish proletarian versions of Ingmar Bergman stars — Alma Pöysti, radiant yet benumbed, plays Ansa like a dish-towel Bibi Andersson, and Jussi Vatanen could be the schlump brother of Max von Sydow (with a dollop of Ryan Gosling). Mostly, we know that they’re going to get together because that’s all there is for them to do.
For their first date, they head to the local art theater to see Jim Jarmusch’s “The Dead Don’t Die” (an in-joke, since Kaurismäki and Jarmusch have been nodding back and forth at each other’s styles for so long now that it’s hard to say who did what first). Then she invites him over for dinner, which requires a (rare) shopping expedition that incarnates Kaurismäki’s comedy of loneliness. She needs to stop by the store to purchase…another dinner plate.
Ansa’s apartment is as sparely decorated as a monk’s garret, with a small flat bed, a couch that looks like she got it at Helsinki Goodwill, and that ancient radio, which blares nothing but reports about the war in Ukraine. The war is closer to home than it is for us; Finland is right on the border. But in “Fallen Leaves,” those dispatches, sober as they are, function with a kind of levity as the top layer of miserablism.
Speaking of sobriety, Holappa’s drinking turns out to be the film’s only conflict. He’s always got a flask or a half-pint bottle on him, and swigs from it all day, which is why he keeps getting fired. His alcoholism doesn’t have to be explained; you see him at work, in his drudge stupor, and think, “I’d be drinking on that job too.” But when Ansa catches him tippling from his flask in secret, she lets him know that he has a choice to make. It’s got to be the drinking or her.
Ansa gets fired too, for handing out food that’s past its sell-by date to a homeless person, and for taking an expired sandwich herself. (It’s a bitter joke that supermarket protocol demanded for her to simply toss it all out.) The go-nowhere jobs are a preoccupation for Kaurismäki. It’s more than a social-political theme — it’s the cornerstone of his romantic vision. His characters are the middle-class stragglers of industrial society, and now that they’ve reached a certain age (hence the film’s title), if they can’t fall in love what can they do? Not much. Sit around at home with a frozen dinner and a bottle of vodka.
Their predicament is humane and inviting, and “Fallen Leaves,” like every Kaurismäki movie I’ve seen, from “Shadows in Paradise” (1986) to “The Match Factory Girl” (1990) to his last film, “The Other Side of Hope” (2017), has a scruffy appeal. There are a couple of a rock ‘n’ roll interludes at the bar, and these scenes do a good job of breaking up the gumdrop fatalism. Yet I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I’m a bit baffled by the critical rapture that has greeted “Fallen Leaves” at Cannes. It’s a nice but exceedingly minor movie. It leaves little imprint. What people are loving, I think, is the nostalgia that’s now built into an Aki Kaurismäki movie. In the age of fragmentation, his films that have never changed are like time-machine trips back to the quirky gusto of the ’90s, when even an indie trifle dipped in Nordic despair could ripple, underneath it all, with optimism.