Ansa works in a Helsinki supermarket, collecting expired food and cadging the odd casserole for her dinner. Holappa is a laborer, working on scrap metal yards and construction sites. As they drift through their days, these two solitary, anonymous souls couldn’t be more banal. Or more captivating. In “Fallen Leaves,” the latest straight-faced serio-comedy from writer-director Aki Kaurismäki, Ansa and Holappa have all the makings of the kind of dispassionate, highly stylized, quietly operatic love stories only the Finnish master of deadpan romance can make.
Fans of Kaurismäki will instantly recognize his house style: Ansa, portrayed in a sweetly laconic performance by Alma Pöysti, might seem to live a drab existence, commuting from market to her cramped apartment in a bored daze. But her home is alive with vibrant color, the reds and greens popping with the pulpy extravagance of Douglas Sirk. Holappa, played by Jussi Vatanen in a turn that channels Jimmy Stewart by way of Jim Jarmusch, ameliorates his ennui by steadily drinking, which is why he and Ansa fetch up at the same karaoke club one night and embark on a journey of crossed signals, blown chances and fateful near misses.
With its deliberate pacing and the actors’ purposefully uninflected delivery, “Fallen Leaves” finds Kaurismäki at his most theatrically mannered; he has always had a gift for finding great faces, and he has discovered two quirkily charismatic doozies here. (The supporting cast is just as watchable, functioning as a gorgeously eccentric Greek chorus and background tableau.) With his painterly compositions, precise framing, velvety lighting and richly saturated color palette, Kaurismäki builds a world that’s simultaneously quotidian and suffused with enchantment (the story’s fairy-tale elements are heightened by a soundtrack dominated by achingly pretty pop songs and classical pieces).
There are moments when “Fallen Leaves” threatens to fall prey to self-conscious absurdism for its own sake: When Holappa takes Ansa to see Jarmusch’s “The Dead Don’t Die” — after which two fellow audience members invoke Bresson and Godard — one senses Kaurismäki straining too hard for hipster cred. But as long as his impassive but compassionate camera is trained on Ansa and Holappa, “Fallen Leaves” casts an irresistible spell, one that’s as playful as it is full of longing and pathos. Even at his most muted and mordantly droll, Kaurismäki is a humanist at his core; he might test how much our hearts can take, but we can rest assured he won’t break them.
Unrated. At area theaters. Contains brief profanity and smoking. In Finnish with subtitles. 81 minutes.