Two lonely people meet in a cold and indifferent, although never wholly cruel or vindictive, world. She is aware of the emptiness in her life; he smothers it with alcohol. They go to the cinema, fall in love (and isn’t going to the cinema always a form of love?) and she gives him her number. We desperately want these people to be together.
He immediately loses it and as the piece of paper (right now the most important object in the universe) flutters away it’s then we realise Aki Kaurismäki is performing open-heart surgery on us with a touch so light we hadn’t even noticed.
Although ‘Fallen Leaves’ (2023), very possibly the Finnish filmmaker’s final movie, is a love story between a man and a woman (and a dog) it’s also an acknowledgement of the love between Kaurismäki and his audience, his own movies and the films he so obviously adores. So there’s explicit, and deeply loving, references to Bresson, Godard (there’s always been that Godardian application of bold colour in Kaurismäki work), Visconti (yay!), Ozu (obvs — and it’s there in the title) and even, and this was a delightful surprise, Don Sharp!
Also, despite the heavy influence of Ozu on Kaurismäki it should be remembered that Ozu’s touching humanism was, in turn, influenced by the great Leo McCarey so when ‘Love Affair’ (1939)/‘An Affair to Remember’ (1957) makes its presence felt it’s less a surprise and more a fitting inevitability. After all, that emotional link from McCarey to Ozu to Kaurismäki has always been there which is why these are three filmmakers with the capacity to gently devastate us.
This isn’t quite Kaurismäki best film but we’re never under the impression it’s trying to be and Kaurismäki’s liberating refusal to ever strive to make a “masterpiece” (in fact, you suspect the notion of the very idea would sicken him) is part of what makes his films so genuine, inviting and free. Yet this looseness is never at the expense of a deft control with Kaurismäki’s use of lighting, composition, space and colour always immaculate (and nobody shoots dockside machinery and towering cranes better than he does).
Instead, this feels more like a loving farewell to both us, the audience, and his own movies; a chance for us all to have one last visit to his world with the hope that if we’re lucky enough to encounter even a ghost of a human connection when we return to ours that we’ll recognise it when we see it. It’s the work of an artist possibly saying goodbye to filmmaking, his own body of work and his audience with brevity, humility and maturity (d’you hear that Tarantino?!).
It’s also, and this was a surprise coming from Kaurismäki, a farewell to alcohol as, sure, drink can potentially ease our pain but it comes at a destructive cost. It insulates us but it’s only by sharing in each other’s suffering that we can bond with each other.
Besides, life might be harsh but it’s not all bad, and if you’re lucky enough to have cinema, a dog and someone who sometimes looks at you with a loving wink then you don’t need anything more. In fact, you have everything you could possibly want, and isn’t that wonderful?
The operation is complete and the surgeon hasn’t left a single scar.