Review: ‘Fallen Leaves’ is a delightful Finnish romp

Since the induction of moving pictures on a big screen, people have lined up to watch other people fall in love. The romantic relationship depictions between two people, sometimes with some humor thrown in for good measure, have brought people venturing to the movies for the chance to fall in love all over again. A new international film from Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki called Fallen Leaves is here to take such audiences on another trip down lovers’ lane.

This Finnish language film is a delightful little romp that looks and feels much older, like a movie from the 1960’s or 70’s. The narrative plays like An Affair To Remember or Sleepless In Seattle, the two main characters are apart for great lengths of the film, and we’re rooting for these star-crossed lovers to find their way past all the obstacles the screenwriter throws at them and get together. The film is as light, funny, cheerful, and entertaining as it is well-paced. It breezes on by at a brisk hour and twenty minutes. General audiences may not be quite as taken with this happy little foreign treasure of a film, but movie lovers and critics will be Fallen like Leaves over this latest effort from Kaurismäki.

The story of Fallen Leaves

While the opening sequence begins, the word “Present” appears at the bottom, indicating the film is taking place currently, which will prove to be a bit of a mystery later on. We hear a checkout scanner at a store. The first scene opens, and we see the grocery store worker Ansa (Alma Pöysti) in her bright red store shirt, checking out a man purchasing a cart full of huge meat packages. Later, she’s pushing around a cart of expired store products and labeling them for disposal; the camera changes to show an overweight security guard dressed all in black glaring at her menacingly as she works. 

Ansa rides home on a bus that evening sporting a long, eggshell blue coat that eventually becomes one of the visual staples the film frequently visits. As she arrives home at her apartment, a building in serious need of a new paint job, she enters and removes an expired package from her purse of what looks to be some kind of cheese, which she pops into the microwave. She turns on an old-fashioned radio and listens to news about the war in Ukraine. 

Modernly crafted to appear older

The fact that the film is taking place in the present times makes it quite an oddity because aesthetically, visually, and even the acting are all crafted to make this film appear much older than it actually is; I’ll get into more specifics later. We then meet Holappa (Jussi Vatanen), a tall, slender fellow with slicked-back hair. He’s using an airbrush hose to clean some metal at what seems to be a recycling center or scrap yard. Later that day at home, he’s lying on his bed reading an old comic book when his friend Huotari (Janne Hyytiäinen) convinces him to come out that night to sing karaoke. 

Later that evening, our two loners, Ansa and Holappa, end up at the same karaoke bar where Huotari belts out a song, and Ansa and Holappa begin to exchange glances from across the room. Before they can meet, though, the scene cuts, and Ansa is back at work the next day; she’s in the back of the store throwing old products into a dumpster when the security guard and a store manager approach her. Ansa is accused of stealing expired products and is fired. 

Ansa and Holappa’s movie date

As the plot moves forward, Ansa eventually gets another job as a dishwasher at a restaurant.  Payday arrives, but instead of just collecting her check, she witnesses her boss’s arrest.  A few people, including Holappa, come to the restaurant to watch as her boss gets taken away. Holappa invites Ansa for coffee but she has no money, so he buys her coffee and a cinnamon roll. Afterward, they decide to extend their date and visit the local cinema. Oddly enough, only old film posters are seen, but they go to see the 2019 film The Dead Don’t Die, starring Adam Driver and Bill Murray. 

Ansa doesn’t give him her name, but she gives him her number. The paper  slips out as he tries to put it in his leather jacket pocket and the camera gives us a good old-fashioned close-up shot of the paper blowing away down the road. Despite the writer’s best efforts to keep these two apart, you know that love, like Ian Malcolm says about life in Jurassic Park, “will find a way.”

Fallen Leaves delivers on the promise of its premise

Writer and director Aki Kaurismäki accomplished exactly what he set out to make with this movie. This premise naturally invites scrutiny. At one point, the camera offers us a zoomed-in shot of Holappa setting a glass on a table next to a bottle of alcohol. It gives the audience an unnecessary visual explanation of the idea that “this man has a drinking problem.” 

Such dumbed-down storytelling tropes are archaic by today’s standards. You can certainly criticize them, but they give this movie the charm and character of a film from a bygone generation. For this recreation, I give Kaurismäki, the actors, costume makers, set designers, and others working on this film a ton of credit. 

It intentionally encapsulates older filmmaking

Fallen Leaves is visually very muted, the color palette is plain, and the costumes and production design are all made to resemble a film circa 1970 or earlier. The acting is intentionally stiff. The delivery of the jokes is intentionally dry and unemotional. The intent to encapsulate the style of filmmaking is obvious. 

There was a different type of acting present in old films; Fallen Leaves captures it here again, and you just don’t see it anymore. To call the acting poor is rather unfair; it’s just different, and in some ways, it’s quite impressive that this cast, and especially the two leads, Vatanen and Pöysti, are able to recapture this retro style of acting. I loved the lighting present in so many shots where almost the entirety of the frame that’s captured is in darkness, but the characters in the center are illuminated by just a small amount of light in the room. 

The music of Fallen Leaves is also dated, the melodies used are simple, and anytime the film uses something from the present, a shot in a liquor store of two young girls dressed modernly, the news speaking about the war in Ukraine, someone using a cell phone, it’s almost shocking. Imagine watching John Travolta pick up a flip phone and call somebody in Grease, and you get the idea. It was odd, to be sure, but the curiosity of it all, combined with the love story between the leads, well, it just made me smile. 

Final thoughts on Fallen Leaves

Was Fallen Leaves some incredible feat of filmmaking or some revolutionary, groundbreaking cinema? No. But it was a delightful little surprise of a film that won me over, and I’d happily recommend it to anyone; the kind of film you could sit down and watch with your kids, grandparents, and family, and everyone could enjoy.

With all the quirkiness in the film I’ve just finished outlining, it won’t be a film for which everyone will be over the moon, but it’s a wonderful foreign movie with broad appeal. Make it a point to catch this fall film when it becomes available; sitting and watching these Fallen Leaves is no chore.

How to watch Fallen Leaves

Fallen Leaves is now streaming. Have you watched it yet? What did you think? Leave a comment below to share your thoughts or message us on X @MoviesWeTexted.

Fallen Leaves is Finland’s official submission for Best International Feature Film at the upcoming 96th annual Academy Awards.

You can also read Russell’s other thoughts, including his recent reviews of All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt and the extended edition of Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. 

If you want to watch more international fare, including other contenders for Best International Feature Film, check out all of our international film reviews.