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Festival de Cannes

MOVIE REVIEW
Fallen Leaves (2023)

It's good to be reminded that a country can have a social safety net that's the envy of the world without necessarily making life easy for its people. It's also good to be reminded that a person’s choices can make life easier or harder without the safety net coming into it, though of course accidents can and do happen. But writer-director Aki Kaurismäki has always been interested in exploring people whose lives are constrained either by circumstance (being broke in Finland) or choice (not focusing on education when young). But everyone deserves to be safe, warm and well-fed, that is taken for granted. It's the pursuit of happiness that's in question.

Neither Ansa (Alma Pöysti) nor Holappa (Jussi Vatanen) is in the first flush of youth, or having the most delightful time. Holappa, whose first name is a mystery, works construction and drinks on the job, which is never a good idea no matter how depressing everything is. He lives in an on-site shipping container with workers from around the world and his friend Huotari (Janne Hyytiäinen, a Kaurismäki regular, doing heroic deadpan comedic work here). Ansa stacks supermarket shelves until she's fired for taking a yogurt past its expiration date; her friend Liisa (Nuppu Koivu) immediately in solidarity discovers some expired food in her own bag and is fired too.

This is trouble for Ansa, who is only afloat financially because of a tiny apartment she inherited from her godmother, but Liisa takes her to karaoke to cheer her up. They find themselves watching Huotari, who gives the bar a song designed to kickstart his musical career. That obviously doesn't happen, but Liisa does compliment him, leading an immediate, but still deadpan, expression of enthusiasm. It's very funny, all these straight faces. Meanwhile Ansa and Holappa regard each other over their drinks and consider. Later they bump into each other as they witness the owner of a bar where Ansa found cash-in-hand work get arrested. Holappa invites her for coffee and a pastry; Ansa says she’d like to accept, as she has the time, but not the money. However Holappa insists it’ll be his treat, so Ansa acquiesces. She eats a pastry and they chat, and consider each other some more. A second date is agreed (a showing of “The Dead Don’t Die,” which also premiered at the Cannes Film Festival), after which and only then does Ansa provide her phone number. Holappa immediately loses the scrap of paper, though he doesn't immediately notice. Ansa wonders why he doesn't call but has to focus on finding a new job. And a real chance for happiness might be slipping through their fingers.

Mr. Kaurismäki clearly believes the personal is political, and has been willing to gamble his career on his beliefs, such as when he boycotted the Oscars in protest at the Iraq war. It is quietly thrilling to see a movie taking the lives of working people seriously, which respects the routines and regulations of these heavy jobs and how people buck against them. It’s even better because it understands the humor in these situations – which is to say, no one here is laughing at them, even as Huotari details his pie-in-the-sky plans for pop stardom; Holappa finds ingenious hiding places for his bottles of vodka; and Ansa must buy a second plate, fork, knife and spoon when she invites someone over for dinner. But the true reason this movie works is the combined charms of Ms. Pöysti, a ray of sunshine despite herself, and Mr. Vatanen, who has the trickier part of playing a man who’s souring fast, and who must decide whether he can – or wants to – uncurdle the milk. Holappa’s drinking hasn’t taken yet over his life, but he’s on the edge. Ansa has a happier sense of herself, but that hasn’t resulted in happiness with anyone else; and happiness is especially impossible with an addict. Will things work out for the best, or will more lives end in the frozen despair which is a speciality of Scandinavian cinema? “Fallen Leaves” is smart enough to provide nearly all of the answers, as well as a dog named Chaplin to cheer Ansa up. But it’s even smarter in its understanding of the complicated layers of the human heart.

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