Following a five year break after 2006’s disappointing Lights in the Dusk, art house audiences were long overdue a new movie from this Academy Award nominated Aki Kaurismäki. Premiering at last year’s Cannes Film Festival – where it was presented with a critics’ award for Best Film – Le Havre sees the Finnish filmmaker return to the big screen as a big softie, with a a heartwarming, poetic tale on an unlikely companionship between two lost souls.
A quick glance at the storyline may flare up your “schmaltz alarm”, but don’t worry, we’re in safe hands.
Set in the Normandy port town of the its’ namesake, Le Havre tells the story of Marcel Maux (André Wilms), an aged writer-turned shoeshiner who spends his days wandering all over town trying to drum up business. But this is an eerily old-fashioned, yet resolutely contemporary world, with Euros and Al-Quaeda attacks splashed across the front of the press and no one interested in the polish trade. Marcel returns home to his anxious wife Arletty (Kati Outinen) with his pocket-money income and food pinched from the local market stores.
Meanwhile, young Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) is discovered in a shipping container nearby with a group of Africans bound for London. The boy runs for it, escaping the immigrant authorities and hides out on the docks. Spotted by Marcel, he takes the boy in. Marcel has grown increasingly lonely after Arletty’s unexpected check-in to the hospital, diagnosed with something quite life threatening. Reaching out for this new companion, Marcel and Idrissa talk and share meals, all whilst local law enforcer, detective Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) is roaming the street to find the immigrant in hiding.
Having touched upon themes of transition and emigration way back in 1988 with the glacial road-movie Ariel, Le Havre is the first film in Kaurismäki’s cannon to reflect on the homogenous European cinema theme of immigration. His assured and welcomingly unfussy narrative pacing turns the weighty political issue into something delicate and sentimental. Marcel is still a humble man. A humanist who sees many outsider-similarities in the young illegal immigrant Idrissa.
Filmed in the Normandy port-side town, Le Havre is Kaurismäki’s ode to the bygone era of poetic-realist French cinema from the likes of Marcel Carné (Le quai des brumes) and René Clair (À Nous la Liberté). The lingering close-up shots and familiar deadpan wit is still there, yet they now take a more rhythmical and buoyant form within Kaurismäki’s unique world. There’s old fashioned cars, decent street performers, greengrocers and cornershop bakeries, and Detective Monet even lingers around wielding a pineapple. None of which is ever explained, yet why should they be? Filmed with regular cinematographer Timo Salminen, the painterly world the pair project is contemporary yet time-honoured and completely absorbing.
Apparently the first film in a trilogy revolving around port cities, it’s fantastic to see Kaurismäki pushed out of his Finnish comfort zone and into French-language territory again after his 1992 sleeper hit – and my personal favourite – La Vie de Bohème. More than a lingual coincidence, Le Havre also has a core narrative tie with that film, when Marcel explains to Idrissa of his “bohemian past in Paris”, the ball drops and you realise we are seeing the same character from twenty years ago, that beatnik playwright desperate to find his next franc. Hardly essential knowledge for understanding this film, it’s great to see that this universe never changes. Kaurismäki isn’t completely abandoning his previous, darker work, or the die-hard fans he has accumulated over a thirty year career making movies.
Le Havre is the most charming Aki Kaurismäki film there is. A visually stunning, humorous portrait of a changing Europe, with one foot in old-fashioned romanticism, and the other in forward-thinking libertarianism. I want to go there.
That just about rounds up by exploration into the work of Aki Kaurismäki. Although his films are far from universally sublime, a glance at his catalogue suggests a defiant director. If you isolate a scene from any of the ten previous films I’ve seen, one can tell almost instantly that they are watching a Kaurismaki creation. It’s the deadpan humour, bleak characters, expressionless actors or incredible soundtracks, but more often than not, it’s something indescribable, something auteur, something that is Kaurismäki; nothing else.