• Festivals

Cannes 2023: Aki Kaurismaki Finds Love in The Time of War in “Fallen Leaves”

Fallen Leaves, the latest from the dry and satirical Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismaki, premiered in the Grand Lumiere Theatre on May 22nd at the Cannes Film Festival. The film is a tragicomedy, showing how two lonely working-class people find love, overcoming circumstantial and personal hurdles to be with one another.

Fallen Leaves introduces Ansa, who is stocking product at a grocery store. After yet another bland day at work, she takes the train back to her lonely apartment and looks out the window forlornly. At home, she listens to a radio news report about a Russian civilian attack in Ukraine as she throws out a microwave dinner before she’s even stuck her fork in. She is lonely but not necessarily discouraged. Her coworker takes her out to a karaoke bar where she locks eyes with a man with slicked back hair.


We never get to know the man’s first name and neither does Ansa, or even his best friend. He is referred to by his last name, Holappa, and he is an alcoholic steel worker who takes a swig of from various hidden bottles of vodka at work and at home. Their attraction is immediate and apparent, although they don’t speak a word to each other. Fate, as it would seem, continues to bring the two together and the two begin a relationship. When Holappa’s alcoholism becomes a deal breaker for Ansa, Holappa must overcome his addiction in order to win back the love of his life.

The film has a sad aura about it from the loneliness of the two main characters, the uninspiring landscape of industrial Helsinki, and of course, the prevalence of radio broadcasts describing horrific attacks on civilian infrastructure in Ukraine. We’re reminded of the proximity of Russia to Finland’s border, and how characters must carry on with their everyday lives as the threat of war hangs overhead. But this film doesn’t let us wallow in depression, and in fact is a celebration of the people who bring out the best in us and give fulfillment to seemingly mundane lives.

And it’s an extraordinarily funny too, stuffed with the dry and scathingly honest humor that Kaurismaki is celebrated for. For instance, when Holappa’s friend asks him why he drinks so much, Holappa replies, “Because I’m depressed.” When asked why he’s depressed, Holappa says, “Because I drink so much.” It seems that only love can break the vicious circle.

At the next day press-conference, Aki Kaurismaki appeared with his starring actors, Alma Pöysti, who was also starred in Tove Jansson in 2020, and Jussi Vatanen, a prolific actor on Finnish television. Right away, the Finnish director told journalists that he wanted to write a romance story but felt that he couldn’t avoid the topic of the war in Ukraine entirely. More than that, he wanted to make a movie that was both timeless and yet remind viewers in the future of Russian military aggression. “It felt like this bloody world needed some love stories now,” he said.

While many celebrities have expressed their support for Ukraine in Cannes this year, such as Catherine Deneuve and Martin Scorsese, Kaurismaki is the first to deliberately include it in his film and speaking about it directly, even finishing his press conference by saying “Glory to Ukraine,” a patriotic phrase that has been used frequently throughout the war.