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Aki Kaurismäki’s new masterpiece makes waves at Cannes festival

In the minimalist romantic comedy ‘Fallen Leaves,’ the Finnish filmmaker searches for Charlie Chaplin’s humanity in wartime Ukraine

Jussi Vatanen and Alma Pöysti in 'Fallen Leaves.'

Fallen Leaves could be a silent film, although that would deprive us of all its songs (tangos, mambos, Finnish pop) and its other soundtrack: the dire news about the war in Ukraine coming through radio broadcasts. The conflict has slipped into the 76th Cannes film festival thanks to the most romantic film on the program, directed by the charismatic and laconic Finnish genius Aki Kaurismäki. His new movie is the simplest, saddest and most perfect in the entire competition. It is the favorite in terms of the star ratings it has received and the first — and so far the only — film in competition that has attracted an enthusiastic ovation from the critics.

Fallen Leaves runs for 81 minutes and tells the story of two lonely beings, an alcoholic and a woman without much luck, who cross paths one day. On their first date they go to the movies together to see Jim Jarmusch’s zombie film The Dead Don’t Die. Kaurismäki unpretentiously displays his cinematographic references: the couple says goodbye at the end of their date in front of a poster of Brief Encounter, the David Lean classic.

But the true beacon of this film is Charles Chaplin, who is “still the best ever,” said Kaurismäki at the press conference. “He created cinema as it is today and he kept it simple.” There is an amusing reference to Chaplin’s incomparable 1931 classic City Lights in the final scene. As was the case with Chaplin, the Finnish director is guided by emotions, but also by the architecture of spaces that are everything in a film about a worker, Holappa, played by Jussi Vatanen —a kind of Nordic James Stewart— and a supermarket employee, Ansa, played by Alma Pöysti.

One of the central themes of the film is alcohol, but when the filmmaker was asked about it at Cannes, he replied with his usual sarcasm: “I chose it because it is so unfamiliar to me.” Kaurismäki, who has lived in Portugal for years, has created a beautiful declaration of intent about his new film: “Although until now I have created my dubious reputation by making mostly unnecessary violent films, I finally ended up, oppressed by all the pointless and criminal wars, writing a story about the subjects through which humanity might have a future: the longing for love, solidarity, hope and respect for other people, nature [...] In the film, I tip my too-small hat to my own film gods Bresson, Ozu and Chaplin, but I am still solely responsible for this catastrophic failure!”

According to his actors, Kaurismäki doesn’t like rehearsals and is “a man of the old school,” said Pöysti. Looking somewhat the worse for wear at his 66 years of age, this shy filmmaker with a somewhat surly sense of humor admitted that he included his own dog in the cast. The animal, which was abandoned near his home in Portugal, “deserves the Palme d’Dog.”

When Kaurismäki was asked by a Ukrainian journalist if he was not afraid to include echoes of a war that “already seems to bore everyone” in Europe, the filmmaker, who rejects Finland’s membership in NATO, replied: “Unfortunately, Europe no longer exists, at least in philosophical terms. I, as a Finn, couldn’t shoot a movie now without remembering what is happening. Slava Ukraine! [Glory to Ukraine!]”.

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