Fallen Leaves and Asteroid City

Alma Pöysti and Janne Hyytiäinen in Aki Kaurismäki’s Fallen Leaves (2023)

Everyone, including AI bots, knows what to expect from a new film by either Wes Anderson or Aki Kaurismäki. Their chosen palettes, textures, and compositional tendencies have remained so consistent over the past few decades that single frames from each of their works are immediately identifiable. Their films may move with dissimilar rhythms and at radically different paces, but descriptions of the performances in both bodies of work will more often than not include the word deadpan. In short, both oeuvres are singular, ongoing projects, and while a few critics have bailed, the new features that two of Cannes’s favorite directors have brought to the competition have been warmly welcomed.

For Ben Kenigsberg at RogerEbert.com, Kaurismäki’s Fallen Leaves is “the surprise of the festival so far—not because Kaurismäki has deviated from the deadpan mode that’s been his signature since at least Hamlet Goes Business (1986), but because he’s brought it close to something like perfection.” Marta Bałaga, writing for Cineuropa, took the temperature of the room after the first screening and sensed that “this is exactly what everyone was looking for after a week of overlong, bloated movies. Something simple, something smart. Something so easy to love.”

Ansa (Alma Pöysti) has been fired from her job at a Helsinki supermarket for giving perfectly edible food past its expiration date to the poor and hungry, herself included. Holappa (Jussi Vatanen) has been kicked off a construction site for drinking on the job. “I’m depressed because I drink and I drink because I’m depressed,” he tells his friend, Huotari (Janne Hyytiäinen). On their first date, Ansa and Holappa go to see Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die, which opened the 2019 edition of Cannes, and several reviewers take note of Kaurismäki’s nods in the film to other directors he admires, including Bresson, Ozu, and Godard.

Fallen Leaves is “a beautifully acted film,” writes Jonathan Romney in Screen. Pöysti “steps with poise into the shoes of former Kaurismäki female lead Kati Outinen, coming across as a full-blown romantic heroine despite the drably unflattering raincoat she wears through much of the film.” Vatanen is “similarly fine as the shy working guy, and has a terrific deadpan buddy act with Hyytiäinen, with their immaculately slow-burn exchanges of one-liners: ‘Tough guys don’t sing.’ Pause. “You’re not a tough guy.’”

Little White Lies editor David Jenkins points out that the long-running partnership between Kaurismäki and cinematographer Timo Salminen “continues to yield gorgeous, dusky, Edward Hopperesque fruits, with shots bathed in arching shadows, and figures often caught staring longingly off into the middle distance.” With its eighty-one-minute running time, Fallen Leaves may be “slight compared to many of Kaurismäki’s more complex narratives,” writes the Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney, “but its well of feeling creeps up on you and it delivers a good share of laugh-out-loud lines with droll aplomb. Besides, who are we to quibble about any gift from one of world cinema’s greatest treasures?”

Asteroid City, though, has provoked an altogether different response from Rooney. Wes Anderson “seldom seems more self-satisfied than when he’s spinning his wheels,” he writes. The new film “made me long for the beautiful sadness afflicting the messed-up family in The Royal Tenenbaums, the adolescent growing pains of Rushmore, the nostalgia for the adventurous spirit of childhood in Moonrise Kingdom, or the haunting tragicomedy of The Grand Budapest Hotel, a movie so layered it almost defies a single viewing.”

You want layers? Asteroid City has layers. The year is 1955, and a television host (Bryan Cranston) appears in a boxy black-and-white frame to introduce a theater troupe workshopping a play, Asteroid City. Jason Schwartzman plays Jones Hall, an actor taking on the role of Augie Steenbeck, a war photographer who, in the play, arrives in Asteroid City, a tiny town out west currently hosting a Junior Stargazer convention. The look of this place—shot, as so often, by Robert Yeoman to revel in the playfulness of Adam Stockhausen’s production design—is “Looney Tunes meets Red Desert, an unlikely and fairly breathtaking synthesis,” writes Filmmaker’s Vadim Rizov.

Augie hasn’t yet been able to break the news to his kids that their mother has died. “Late in the movie,” writes Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri, “Jones steps away from playing Augie and runs into the actress (Margot Robbie) who was to play the part of his wife but was reportedly cut from the finished piece. As the two recall the scene they would have had together, the Andersonian whimsy slips away to reveal a perfect moment: two people communing with the messiness of life through their memory of a scene that doesn’t exist, from a play that never happened, presented within a theatrical-cinematic fiction pretending to be a TV show. I cried like a baby.”

Asteroid City is “Anderson’s most complete, rich, and surprising film to date, and perhaps his most autobiographical in some obscure, allegorical way, in that it stands as testament to how filmmaking is about bringing artists together and attuning them to a specific wavelength,” writes David Jenkins. Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson, too, finds it to be “an oddly moving film, this bright and quite literally stagey curio involving an extraterrestrial. At its best, Asteroid City evokes the memory of what it was to first see a Wes Anderson film, surprised and delighted by its singular vision of life on Earth.”

Next Thursday, Pushkin Press will release DO NOT DETONATE Without Presidential Approval: A Portfolio on the Subjects of Mid-century Cinema, the Broadway Stage and the American West, a collection of eight new essays placed alongside classic criticism by writers such as François Truffaut, Jonas Mekas, and Pauline Kael. Anderson says that the book, edited by Jake Perlin, is “about the atmosphere” of his new film. Perlin has also curated a series, Do Not Detonate: In the Orbit of Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City, which will run from June 2 through 16 at New York’s Museum of the Moving Image.

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