‘Fallen Leaves’ Stars Alma Pöysti and Jussi Vatanen Talk ‘Sensei of One-Liners’ Aki Kaurismäki

Finnish actors Alma Pöysti and Jussi Vatanen have been making names for each other for a while now. But playing leads in Aki Kaurismäki’s latest film, “Fallen Leaves,” was a whole different story.

“He has always been that household name, even when I was growing up on a farm in the 1980s, kicking a ball against our cowhouse. It’s crazy that now, we are here together. Also, he is really just a regular guy. Funny and he actually talks a lot,” Vatanen tells Variety in Cannes.

A household name himself thanks to the “Lapland Odyssey” franchise, he has been exploring dramatic roles in “Forest Giant” or “The Man Who Died.”

“As a Finn, you are very, very familiar with his style. We have seen all his movies and it’s just in our blood, I guess. I actually thought that [entering this universe] was quite easy.”

Pöysti, celebrated for her turn in biopic “Tove” and “Four Little Adults,” adds: “It’s also beautiful to work with an old-school director, to work on film, surrounded by a team that has been together for 40 years. We come from the digital world, where you do a hundred takes. With him, you get one. It requires a whole different kind of concentration, because we can’t fuck up. Nobody can. The pressure is on and you get a kick out of it.”

In “Fallen Leaves,” vying for this year’s Cannes Palme d’Or, Pöysti and Vatanen play kind, a bit broken people who slowly start to fall for each other. Nobody has any money and jobs are hard to come by, or to keep – especially when one likes to drink. But they keep on trying, all the while listening to the latest news about the war in Ukraine.

“It’s like that in his other movies as well: They are timeless but also time specific,” says Pöysti.

“In the past, he has been showing the refugees. Now, it’s Ukraine. The way he shoots Helsinki is very interesting as well, because through his films, you get a story about a changing city.”

“About a city that keeps eating itself,” adds her co-star. As well as cinema, as their characters live surrounded by vintage film posters and even watch Jarmusch’s “The Dead Don’t Die” at one point.

“Does he talk about cinema with his actors? All. The. Time. That guy lives for it. And about books, about music. But there is nothing dusty about it – his passion is still alive,” notices Pöysti.  

“It’s hard to compete with that kind of knowledge. The first time we met, there was this feeling that he already had the whole movie inside of his head,” adds Vatanen.

“He is the sensei of one-liners. With very few words, he manages to say exactly what he wants. It’s like poetry. The first time we held the script, there weren’t that many sentences. But you still feel that nothing needs to be added.”

“Fallen Leaves” is produced by Sputnik and Bufo, with Germany’s Pandora Film Production also on board. Distributed by Diaphana Distribution, the sales are handled by The Match Factory.  

Whether “Fallen Leaves,” the fourth part of his “working-class trilogy,” will be Kaurismäki’s last remains to be seen, but it’s filled with familiar faces. Of friends and collaborators, of “Compartment No. 6” director Juho Kuosmanen or his leads in “The Other Side of Hope,” Sherwan Haji and Sakari Kuosmanen.

“He gathered his family around him in the film. People he knows, people he trusts,” notes Vatanen.  

“There is so much love for him among the actors [in Finland], among the people in our industry. People are proud of him.”

Pöysti and Vatanen are proud of their characters too, they say. Two “working-class heroes” who can stand up for themselves when needed and who despite so many disappointments decide to give love another go.

“It’s the shyest love story I have ever been in and it requires massive amounts of courage. I really admire them for that. They are not 17 years old anymore, they are in their forties. It could be easier to stay alone and yet they are taking this leap,” notes Pöysti, with Vatanen adding: 

“In a way, it’s a superhero movie. They have a lot of courage. Her superpower is that she can see goodness in people when others can’t. Today, I realized that the first time she looks at him, she decides he will be her man. In a way, their story is inevitable.”  

But there will be struggles on the way and plenty of sad songs – including those delivered by Finnish band Maustetytöt. Not to mention a dog, making its feature debut, shares Pöysti. 

“It’s a bit as if we were trying to say: ‘Bear with us, it’s going to be worth it.’ You know that at the end of the day, Aki will take care of these people.”

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