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From Finland, with love, Alma Pöysti and Jussi Vatanen bring ‘Fallen Leaves’ to Hollywood

LOS ANGELES (AP) — There are two types of cinephiles in the world: Aki Kaurismäki fans and future Aki Kaurismäki fans.
Alma Poysti arrives at the 81st Golden Globe Awards on Sunday, Jan. 7, 2024, at the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)

LOS ANGELES (AP) — There are two types of cinephiles in the world: Aki Kaurismäki fans and future Aki Kaurismäki fans.

Alma Pöysti and Jussi Vatanen, the Finnish stars of his latest, the tragicomic romance “Fallen Leaves,” are getting to meet both during their whirlwind tour of America at the height of Hollywood’s awards season.

In the span of just a few days, they’d attend the Golden Globe Awards, where both the film and Pöysti were nominated, get the news that the National Society of Film Critics had selected “Fallen Leaves” as the best non-English-language film of the year, take a quick detour to San Francisco for a screening, and head back to Los Angeles in time for the Governors Awards.

They are running out of superlatives to describe the experience, Vatanen said in a joint interview with Pöysti earlier this week, but both can agree it's been “overwhelming.”

The film is about two lonely people in working-class Helsinki, Ansa and Holappa, who meet at a karaoke bar and attempt to embark on a romance despite missed connections, lost phone numbers, general awkwardness, middle-age solitude and other such obstacles to true love. Its deadpan charms have transcended cultures and brought new attention to and appreciation for Kaurismäki 20 films in, even if he himself shies away from press and the spotlight. Thus it’s on the actors to be emissaries for the film. But it's the opposite of a chore — it’s a privilege.

“This this film brings joy and hope and comfort to people,” Vatanen said. “It’s great to be an ambassador of that.”

Pöysti said she’s almost jealous of the people who are finding Finland’s most famous director through “Fallen Leaves.”

“They have so many nice things to discover,” she said. “His humor gets you whatever age you are, wherever you come from, whatever language you speak. And that’s a true gift to be able to do that. Humor is one of the hardest things to translate into different cultures and Aki does that very uniquely and masterfully. But also his deep humanism is at the core of it all.”

And you don’t need a specialty video store to access his films either: The Criterion Channel is currently streaming 15 Kaurismäki films, including the so-called proletariat trilogy (“Shadows in Paradise,” “Arial” and “The Match Factory Girl”), which “Fallen Leaves” fits neatly within, as well as “Le Havre” and “The Other Side of Hope.” “Fallen Leaves” will also be available to stream on MUBI starting Jan. 19.

Both Vatanen and Pöysti grew up under Kaurismäki’s influence, not just his films but the culture of film appreciation he helped build in Finland with festivals and theaters and “spaces for people to meet around cinema,” Pöysti said. The opportunity to then actually be in one of his films was one that neither took for granted.

“He truly is the maestro in Finnish cinema,” Vatanen said. “To have a chance to work with him, it’s like a dream which you never had because it just felt so distant.”

“Fallen Leaves” is a film lover's film to its core, with references to Jim Jarmusch, David Lean and Charlie Chaplin. Ansa and Holappa’s movie date is to “The Dead Don’t Die” but there are also movie posters in the background of many scenes — and it didn't stop when the cameras turned off, either.

“It was like an endless movie quiz on set," Vatanen said. “There was no chance you could beat Aki in film knowledge.”

Pöysti added that the filmmakers debated the poster choices “passionately."

They’ve been on the road with “Fallen Leaves” on and off for almost a year, since it debuted at the Cannes Film Festival, on through the New York Film Festival and its theatrical debuts around the world. And now, they’ve found themselves in the flurry of Oscar season. “Fallen Leaves” is on the shortlist for best international feature representing Finland. But they don’t want to talk about that possibility just yet, before nominations are announced on Jan. 23.

“We don’t want to jinx anything,” Pöysti said.

Besides, it’s more fun to talk about the film anyway, which Pöysti likes to say is “more salt” than “sugary love story.”

“They lead very rough lives. But humor is somehow what gets you through the day,” she said. “And these are not dating professionals at all. They’re behaving like perhaps how you’re supposed to maybe be on a date. But I don’t think either one of them has been on a date, perhaps ever.”

Vatanen added: “It’s a bit like they’ve read a handbook of dating, you know, like, ask her for a coffee and then the movies and maybe a dinner.”

One thing they do not ask each other is their names, which Vatanen said is actually not the craziest thing, coming from Finland. The Finnish, he said, are “the silent bunch of Europeans.”

“You could almost also perhaps call it flirting, that you don’t get all the information right away. You have to somehow earn it,” Pöysti added. “And they are extremely shy. Saying your name might be a very, very vulnerable thing to.”

And they’ve enjoyed hearing everyone’s reactions to “Fallen Leaves” at screenings around the world and knowing that people leave the film feeling hopeful.

“I love the fact that it’s just a small love story,” Vatanen said. “It’s not covered in anything. It’s simple emotions, simple humanity and it still, I guess because of that, touches people,”

They did get a few precious hours of downtime one day during their trip, too. Naturally, they went to the movies: A retrospective screening of Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye” at the the New Beverly Cinema. In the land of movie stars, they expected to go under the radar. But much to their surprise, there were some moviegoers there who recognized them and wanted to talk about Kaurismäki and “Fallen Leaves.”

“It was quite crazy,” Vatanen said.

Lindsey Bahr, The Associated Press