Cinematic journeys in old-time Finland

  • Themes: Film, Scandinavia

In Aki Kaurismäki’s constructed reality, Finland's Old World is not only remembered but also, beguilingly, regenerated.

Jussi Vatanen and Alma Poysti in Fallen Leaves.
Jussi Vatanen and Alma Poysti in Fallen Leaves. Credit: Sputnik / Finnish Film Foundation / Album

In 2016, Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki announced his retirement from film-making. He had just released The Other Side of Hope, a tragi-comedy about a Finnish businessman who befriends a Syrian asylum-seeker, a film made with the explicit intention of changing people’s perception of refugees in Finland. The retirement proved premature. Kaurismäki has returned to the screen with Fallen Leaves, a distinctly offbeat romantic comedy set in Helsinki.

The story begins in the supermarket where Ansa (Alma Pöysti) works on a zero-hours contract, and where she is busy marking items down at the end of the day. She and Holappa (Jussi Vatanen), who works as a sandblaster, are yet to cross each other’s paths. Both Ansa and Holappa are understated rebels. When Holappa takes a break, he sits beneath a ‘No Smoking’ sign and lights a cigarette, declaring ‘The black lung will get me first.’ Ansa, whose job includes discarding unsold food, gives some of it away to those who ask and occasionally takes something home for herself. Ansa and Hollapa’s identities as workers – their harsh and precarious working conditions – form a large part of what defines them. Thus Fallen Leaves takes it place within Kaurismäki’s body of work as an addition to the ‘proletariat triptych’ formed by Shadows in Paradise (1986), Ariel (1988) and The Match Factory Girl (1990), films which featured supermarket cashiers, rubbish collectors, miners and factory workers.

Outside of work Ansa leads an atomised life, sitting alone on a suburban trains or trams or in her apartment with only the sound of her radio breaking up the silence. She usually eats a meal for one heated up in the microwave, and, when she invites a guest for dinner, we know this is a first-time event: she buys a second plate and set of cutlery for the occasion. Holappa meanwhile lives in a container which he shares with other workers.

Though Kaurismäki is undoubtedly a man of the left and much preoccupied with social injustice, his films are less concerned with politics as such than with philosophical and poetic observation. Fallen Leaves evokes Finland as a European no-man’s land, a place whose glassy alienation and loneliness is strongly reminiscent of the paintings of Edward Hopper. It is perhaps significant to note here that Kaurismäki, who is acutely aware of the effects of light deprivation on the Nordic psyche, spends much of the year in Portugal because ‘it is the furthest place from Finland in Europe’.

Particularly effective in making poetic the grim reality that he depicts is Kaurismäki’s use of colour, which borrows something of Hopper’s palette of pale green, flesh pinks and pillar-box reds. In Fallen Leaves, as in many Kaurismäki films, the luminous cinematography is by Timo Salminen. To a large degree, Salminen and Kaurismäki tell their stories through their sense of colour. So meticulous and complete is this approach that the colours of all sets and costumes are specified in Kaurismäki’s scripts. The presence of colour makes itself felt early on in Fallen Leaves, when Ansa and her female colleagues are putting on their coats in the staff cloakroom and the subtle and sensuous colours of garments and locker doors begin to harmonise. Later in the film, a dinner date scene suggests the possibility of love through a tentative dialogue between yellows and reds. Light is also handled with great delicacy: the headlights of passing cars glide over a window through which Hollapa is watching a band perform; a drunk sitting in a dingy bar is lit as lustrously as the subject of an Old Master painting.

Another distinctive aspect of Kaurismäki’s cinematic world is the exceptional density of its references to other films. Kaurismäki has been quite open about ‘stealing’ omnivorously from those he admires: Yasujirō Ozu, Carl Dreyer, Robert Bresson, Douglas Sirk, Howard Hawks, Ernst Lubitsch, Frank Capra and Charlie Chaplin, to name but a few. While telling his own stories, Kaurismäki also operates as a one-man film archive, a repository of cinema. This is an effective way to torment film critics, reminiscent of James Joyce’s deliberate planting of myriad intertextual clues in Ulysses. It is typical of Kaurismäki’s sardonic stance that, as Ansa and Holappa exit the cinema after their first date – where, rather unexpectedly, they’ve seen Jim Jarmusch’s absurdist zombie comedy The Dead Don’t Die – another spectator comments: ‘It reminded me of Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest or Godard’s Bande à Part.’ This is a joke, but it is also intended as a way of inspiring a desire to seek out and see these other films, or perhaps see them again.

Kaurismäki has declared that the history of cinema since the 1960s has been one of severe decline. And so, by referring to other works belonging to the film canon, he is expressing a nostalgic desire to hold on to the nourishing cultural productions of the Old World in the face of the accelerated modernisation of Finland. When Ansa and Holappa stand outside the cinema, a damaged poster for David Lean’s Brief Encounter is visible behind them. This classic film, the story of a coup de foudre between two very ordinary people, immediately endows their own with another layer of meaning and dignity.

Kaurismäki’s deft appropriation of other film-makers is a kind of archiving and preservation of the past, but also a way of enriching, reinventing and even restoring a reimagined Finnish reality. In Fallen Leaves (whose title refers to Les feuilles mortes, an emblematic French song from the 1940s), the shots of Helsinki’s industrial landscapes echo Ozu’s contemplative shots of the city in Tokyo Story; the deliberately artificial colours are those of a Sirk melodrama; the ending, where Ansa, Holappa and their dog Chaplin walk away towards a happy future, is a tribute to the end of Chaplin’s Modern Times. This pastiche ending also suggests that Kaurismäki is well aware that a happy ending is a fairytale convention of cinema. Much as we are rooting for Ansa and Holappa, it is difficult not to feel that the truth of their story – its tragic reality – lies in an earlier scene where a stricken Ansa realises that Holappa is (like her father and brother, who both died prematurely as a result) an alcoholic, and sends him away.

In spite of all this vintage layering there are contemporary anchors in the film, such as a wonderfully deadpan performance by Finnish indie girl-band Maustetytöt (literally ‘spice girls’) and the continued, threatening offstage presence, periodically signalled on the radio, of the war in Ukraine. Fallen Leaves is no retro daydream. Added to this is Kaurismäki’s affinity with silent cinema, which means that the story is told eloquently enough through images and music.

The acting style is marked by minimalist restraint. Dialogue is spare, and often effectively replaced or punctuated by snippets of song lyrics. This paring down to essentials is accompanied by an unwavering attention paid to the human face, to the movements of the body and the gaze. Thus every tiny gesture, every subtle change in expression resonates, loaded with limpid meaning, and is as readily accessible as anything by Chaplin.

Fallen Leaves’s wealth of buried cinematic references is what gives Kaurismäki’s film an international resonance, but the film’s Finnish identity is also reverently preserved and enriched by it. It is no accident that during a karaoke scene, Holappa’s friend chooses to perform ‘something Finnish national romantic’. In Kaurismäki’s constructed reality, the Old World and the possibilities of romance are not only remembered but also, beguilingly, regenerated.


Muriel Zagha