Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki was once asked why there is so little camera movement in his films. “That’s a nuisance when you have a hangover,” he responded. His joke captures three elements of the prolific director’s latest feature, Fallen Leaves: wry humor, a spare style stripped of any distraction or nuisance (not to say nuance), and alcoholic depression.
Fallen Leaves—which won the prestigious Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and was recently screened at the New York Film Festival ahead of a November U.S. release—is, as Kaurismäki put it, the “fourth part of a trilogy”—namely, his “Proletariat” series, dealing with despair and hope among Finland’s working class. These films, along with many others by Kaurismäki, share a number of plot elements: at least one character loses a dead-end job; there is at least one act of random violence; a lot of the action takes place in dive bars; and there’s often a dog—in this case named “Chaplin” after the filmmaker Kaurismäki idolizes. Lastly, there’s typically a sweet but awkward, nearly mute courtship, in this case between two struggling forty-somethings: Holappa, a sandblaster and construction worker who keeps losing jobs because of his alcoholism, and Ansa, a grocery-store stock clerk. Their romance is tenuous from the beginning—Holappa immediately loses Ansa’s number after their first date—and threatened by their deteriorating circumstances and Holappa’s drinking.
Kaurismäki’s style is minimalist and sometimes absurdist. Apart from their bold color scheme—teals, mustard yellows, and maroons—his sets are almost comically spare and populated with anachronistic technology and furniture that make contemporary Helsinki look like East Berlin at the height of the Cold War. This distinctive style, sometimes referred to as “Aki World,” finds parallels in the work of American directors like Jim Jarmusch and Wes Anderson, who traffic in similar deadpan humor and stylized mise en scène and who have both been influenced by Kaurismäki.
This absurdism and humor might seem at odds with a social realism that tracks the deprivation of working-class characters, but Kaurismäki follows both Charlie Chaplin and Bertolt Brecht in distancing his characters from strict naturalistic reality in order to bring intellectual and political ideas to the fore. In an interview, Kaurismäki said, “I like Brecht’s idea that the actor should regard himself as a narrator who only quotes the character he is playing. In this way, audiences are provoked to draw intellectual conclusions instead of just becoming emotionally attached to what they see.” In one example of this kind of distancing, Holappa broods over yet another beer while he tells his friend Huotari he’s depressed because he drinks so much. So why, Huotari asks, does he drink so much? “Because I’m depressed.” The wry detachment of the actors from their characters, along with the eccentric sets, eases our distress at their penury while also providing a distance that invites us to reflect on it. In another scene, after a sad dinner of eggs and potatoes, Ansa informs Holappa that her dreary one-room apartment was passed down to her by an aunt. “So you’re an heiress,” he replies.