Hooray. Aki Kaurismäki is back. Watching the Finnish auteur’s first film since The Other Side of Hope – and threatened retirement – it’s as if he never went away. The same droll humour and keen social awareness that have defined his work since Leningrad Cowboys Go America, in 1989, are now put in service of a lovely, star-crossed romance.
Ansa, played by Alma Pöysti, is a lonely attendant at a grocery store who is fired for taking an expired sandwich home rather than letting it go to waste. Holappa (Jussi Vatanen), a hopeless alcoholic, is similarly struggling to find gainful employment. With a nod to Buster Keaton, they together manage something like a flickering half-smile during the entirety of their delicately constructed courtship. When he comes to dinner, Alma poignantly has to purchase a second plate for her sparse flat. In common with the other deadpanning Helsinkians around them, they maintain the same poker-faced melancholy whether listening to news from the Russian-Ukrainian war or overhearing grandiose comparisons from patrons emerging from a screening of (the spiritually related) Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die. “Great film. Reminded me of Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest,” says one viewer. “I was thinking of Godard’s Bande à Part,” says another.
It’s in keeping with the film-maker’s sense of humour that, following on from Shadows in Paradise, Ariel and The Match Factory Girl, this is the fourth film in Kaurismäki’s proletariat trilogy, from the 1980s. The tone remains the same, but the impact is different. The once hipper-than-thou monosyllabic dialogue speaks more to modern alienation than to voguish laconicism. The California Bar, a karaoke joint populated by breviloquent drunks and decorated in 1960s Americana, is a throwback to a throwback, a quaintly outmoded fetishisation of an American culture that no longer exists. Never mind the Christmas repertoire reissues. A stray dog and hilariously sad songs ensure that this is the crowd-pleaser of the season.
Fallen Leaves is on limited release from Friday, December 1st