Kaurismäki’s portrayal of small moments in French life belie a much bigger film

November 11, 2011

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(Courtesy of Le Havre)
Blondin Miguel plays Idrissa in the new film 'Le Havre.'

Le Havre is the new film by Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki. It was made in France where Kaurismäki now lives much of the time, in Le Havre, a port city on the coast of Brittany. Le Havre, the film, is pure joy and magic. It is witty, filled with priceless ironies, funny and heart-warming. As soon as it ends, you want to see it again. It gives you something that is hard to come by in films today: a belief in the possibilities of human nature. The theme of Le Havre is that people can be kind and work together, that by working together with open hearts lives can be saved, despite governments that enact and enforce stupid and mean laws which hurt the innocent.

These are big statements. Le Havre achieves them in seemingly little, unobtrusive steps, in ways which are so sophisticated and magical, they are seamless and almost invisible. Andre Wilms, a classically trained actor, plays Marcel Marx, an aging shoeshine man. As the film opens, Marcel and his shoeshine Vietnamese colleague Chang stand staring at a gangland shootout at the Le Havre port. A rich gangster is gunned down. He had just received a shoeshine from Marcel who comments, "Luckily, he had time to pay."

The concept is this: a shipping container at the Le Havre port opens to reveal a group of African immigrants. The container, bound for London, ends up at Le Havre. A teenage boy named Idrissa escapes the police and is saved by Marcel. To protect Idrissa, Marcel enlists the help of his wife Arletty. She is played by one of Kaurismäki’s long-time collaborators, the brilliant actress Kati Outinen. Marcel and Arletty live in a tiny house in a poor section of town with a wise dog named Laika. There is a grocery store, a bakery, a cafe. It's how we think of an idyllic France: a neighborhood.

The pressure builds when a snooping detective starts prowling around, and Arletty suddenly falls sick. How to save Arletty? How to save Marcel, who could not live without her? How to save Idrissa from being deported back to Africa? Simple answer: It takes a village with open hearts. It’s a fairytale. Or is it?

It's clear where Kaurismäki's own heart is. He is no fan of industrialized capitalism that's marginalized the poor. He doesn’t shirk away from reality. One scene reveals that reality in a French immigrant camp. Yet Kaurismäki believes through and through in the good-heartedness of these characters. They have built their lives with hard work and dignity. Helping others comes as naturally as breathing.  

From an American perspective, Kaurismäki’s story of the immigrant boy from Africa who ends up in the wrong city, becomes poignant. The "people" -- as if such a collective idea was possible in the 21st century -- have the power, ingenuity and empathy to embrace others, no matter how different they are. We, the people, are all in need; we all have the capacity to answer each other’s need.

Behind Kaurismäki’s magic lies a lot of cinematic sophistication. The film is beautiful, shot with a precision by Timo Salminen. It recalls classic French cinema of Carne, Prevert, Rene Clair, Jean-Pierre Melville, Bresson, Vigo. It is playful, even in Kaurismäki's choice of the names of his characters. Marcel's last name, Marx, is a play on Karl Marx. His wife, Arletty, is named after the famous French actress and singer, the star of Children of Paradise. Idrissa, the boy, bears the name of the famous African filmmaker, Idrissa Ouedraougou. Even Laika, the dog, is named after the first Soviet dog in space. It has wonderful cameo performances by the great French comic Pierre Etaix and French New Wave actor Jean-Pierre Leaud. Its humanism is equaled only by the great films of Jean Renoir and Robert Bresson.

Don't believe that this is a little film. In another, less noisy and less distracted world, Le Havre would have the same impact as Bicycle Thief did six decades ago. Whether or not it does, depends in a large part, on you.

 

Milos Stehlik is the director of Facets Multimedia. His commentaries reflect his own views and not necessarily those of Facets Multimedia, Worldview or WBEZ.

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