Even though Aki Kaurismaki has won every award going and is a household name in his native Finland, where he is treated like a god, it may be that you’ve never heard of him. He is the business. He specialises in understated dramas about deadpan losers whose hopes are often crushed, but who somehow find comfort. If that doesn’t sell it, try this: he is so briskly clear-eyed that his films never outstay their welcome and his latest, Fallen Leaves, runs to just 81 minutes. Could we love him more? Might he not be our favourite auteur of all time?
Fallen Leaves, which won the Jury Prize at Cannes and is Finland’s submission for the Oscars, has a straightforward premise that isn’t original by any means: can two lonely people find each other? But his take is original, if hard to explain. Kaurismaki somehow suffuses every frame with feeling, even if his storytelling is so pared back it is almost unfeeling. It’s the opposite of melodrama, whatever that is. The film follows two main characters. One is Ansa (Alma Poysti), a middle-aged woman who lives alone in a Helsinki apartment and loses her supermarket job when a belligerent security guard discovers she’s hidden an expired sandwich in her handbag. Meanwhile, across town, Holappa (Jussi Vatanen), a lanky metal-worker, is fired from a construction site due to an accident that his boss blames on his drinking. Actually, it was due to faulty machinery, but it’s true that Holappa is an alcoholic with vodka stashed in his locker. The pair first meet in a karaoke bar. They clock each other but don’t speak. The script is so spare it probably only runs to a couple of pages, but every moment is imbued with meaning and lonesomeness. I was often put in mind of Edward Hopper’s paintings.