PRINT November 2011


Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre

Aki Kaurismäki, Le Havre, 2011, still from a color film in 35 mm, 93 minutes. From left: Marcel Marx (André Wilms) and Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin).

ONLY IN AN AKI KAURISMÄKI film would someone comfort a dying woman by reading Kafka to her, as happens near the end of the po-faced Finn’s latest proletarian fable, Le Havre. Though still capable of such mordant jokes, Kaurismäki here largely forgoes the defining characteristics of his early cinema—battery-acid irony; mannerist compositions; elaborate conceptual jokes; the blithe and reckless jumbling of moods, sources, tones, and genres—in favor of the autumnal humanism and neo-Christian charity of his latter-day comedies of desperation Drifting Clouds (1996) and Man Without a Past (2002). Recognizing that he is incapable of making a polemical or documentary-like film about illegal immigrants in Europe, Kaurismäki has wisely resorted to the mode of Neorealist fairy tale to address a social issue long on his melancholy mind. Not for him the sickly mix of fantasy and social commentary in Vittorio De Sica’s “once upon a time” Miracle in Milan (1951), but rather a rigorously stylized dream of community, sustained by a faith in humanity’s capacity for compassion so profound and selfless that it averts any challenge to credibility. Kaurismäki makes one desperate to believe, even as reality refutes every aspect of his optimistic vision.

Arletty—the expiring woman whose final days are (supposedly) cheered by Kafka’s tale of the mad who cannot sleep, “Children on a Country Road”—is played by Kaurismäki’s constant muse, Kati Outinen, once the director’s murderous match-factory girl, here the loving wife of an aged shoeshine man with the alliterative and slightly overdetermined name of Marcel Marx (André Wilms). His humble vocation, Marcel claims, comes second only to the shepherds’ as the one that best observes the lessons of the Sermon on the Mount—Kaurismäki’s cinema has of late been crowded with religious symbolism, with resurrections, churches, miracles, priests, even the Salvation Army—and the vocation is threatened not only by the proliferation of sneakers but by snooty shoe retailers whose false consciousness makes them call their should-be colleagues “terrorists” and send them packing. Something of an Aki alter ego, Marcel “takes a glass sometimes,” smokes copiously (Wilms jokes that he was hired for the role because “I have a very long nose, which allows me to smoke in the shower”), and prefers the appurtenances of the past. Much about contemporary life affronts the nostalgic Kaurismäki—it’s little coincidence that the film’s villain is the sole character to use a cell phone—and one infers that his perfect world would be assembled from Bakelite, Lillet, and Luckys, to the backbeat of Damia.

Appositely for a film set in France and replete with references to classic French cinema, the spirit of Le Havre is less that of Fassbinder’s bitterly funny Arbeiter tragedies, which provided the model for some of Kaurismäki’s early films, than that of Popular Front Renoir, the sense of working-class solidarity one finds in his La Vie est à nous and Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (both 1936). Much as the patrons of an inn allow Monsieur Lange, fleeing from the law after murdering his boss, to escape across the border, the sociable inhabitants of Marcel’s neighborhood conspire to harbor a Gabonese boy hunted by police and to pay for his illegal transport to London, where his mother awaits him. “My camera hates modern architecture,” Kaurismäki has said, and he sought out the remnants of prewar Le Havre in which to set his enchanting allegory. Life in Marcel and Arletty’s tight-knit, time-forgotten quartier naturally centers on a bar, ironically named La Moderne, where the lost and the louche, men who look like cross-Channel cousins of Keith Richards with their gnarled teeth, hair by Mixmaster, and faces rutted by decades of clopes and calvados, hang out to debate the nature of Breton culture and Alsatian ducks. In this prole utopia, Marcel takes his evening aperitif, or three, and finds the camaraderie that supports him in his campaign to shield and then secret away the refugee, a sweet-natured boy called Idrissa.

Robert Bresson has long been the lodestar of Kaurismäki’s cinema; the Finn’s first film, Crime and Punishment (1983), from the same source as Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959), was an almost parodic mimicking of the French master’s taciturn method. From its first shot, Le Havre relies on the style of late Bresson, with its clipped, sometimes elliptical editing, inexpressive acting, emphatic use of offscreen space and visual synecdoche, its unerring eye for color and texture and tendency to linger a beat or two on a vacated space. The opening sequence of Le Havre, a gangland shootout set in a train station (just as the great set pieces of thievery in Pickpocket are), provides a case study in Bressonian technique. Marcel and his Vietnamese confrere Chang stand staring intently offscreen right, their shoeshine equipment—Chang’s vividly striped chair and lacquered kit; Marcel’s dun, utilitarian stool and box—bespeaking their respective characters, as clothing and comportment often do in Bresson’s cinema. A shared POV shot of voyagers’ feet captures the sense of the two men’s dependency on shoe leather, their world reduced to footwear; and, like the close-up of the handcuffs that secure a mobster’s attaché case to his wrist a few seconds later, the framing recalls the tight, truncated shots of torsos, limbs, and manacled hands in Bresson. (Later in the film, a low-slung shot of Marcel’s feet as he steps onto a bus and the door whooshes closed behind him is modeled on a similar shot and sound in Bresson’s Le Diable probablement [1977].) Though the sartorial style of the killers, decked out in shades and trench coats—their Italian victim, in pomade and mouton—conjures the shadowy world of Jean-Pierre Melville’s gangster films, the cinematic style is pure Bresson, as the inevitable mayhem takes place entirely offscreen, registered only by sound: the screech of tires, gunshots, a movie-ish scream.

Aki Kaurismäki, Le Havre, 2011, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 93 minutes. From top: Chang (Quoc Dung Nguyen) and Marcel Marx (André Wilms).

Kaurismäki also shares with late Bresson a determinist view of the world and an abhorrence for the workings of capitalism. Like the Bresson who interpolated documentary footage of ecological despoliation into Le Diable probablement, he employs news coverage of the demolition of a French refugee camp known as “The Jungle” to establish the real-life plight of those like Idrissa. And as in Bresson’s final film, L’Argent (1983), where the passing of a counterfeit bill precipitates what the director called “an avalanche of evil,” Le Havre often concentrates on the counting of coins and the tallying of euros—the cost of a one-egg omelet and a small red wine, say, or, more important, of the smuggling of Idrissa to London. In Marcel’s evocative phrase, “money moves in the shadows”—a translation (of “l’argent circule au crépuscule”) that, unfortunately, neglects the original’s tilted rhyme, though it retains its hints of furtive circulation.

Kaurismäki’s attempts to re-create the flat, uninflected delivery of Bresson’s neutral actors (or “models,” as he preferred to call them) have an absurdist oddity. The Comédie-Française-trained Wilms speaks in rushed, dry volleys while Outinen recites her French with a dolorous Finnish accent whose cadences lean toward Esperanto. Kaurismäki departs from Bressonian edicts in his lavish use of nondiegetic music, though many of the songs on Le Havre’s playlist are sourced and typically vintage: The jukebox at La Moderne, an anachronistic Aki apparatus, plays only chansons and tangos from long ago, and when Idrissa listens to a vinyl record on Marcel’s chunky wood-grain phonograph, it’s Blind Willie McTell’s 1928 version of “Statesboro Blues,” not the popular Allman Brothers cover the rest of the world knows. The eclectic sound track might be expected of Kaurismäki, who previously mixed Shostakovich and rockabilly, Baltic pop and Hindemith, and here veers from the Renegades to Rautavaara, the contemporary Finnish composer. Unembarrassed by pathos, Kaurismäki employs the latter’s soaring, romantic “Apotheosis” to accompany the plaintive montage of refugee faces when their waylaid shipping container is pried open, the illness and resurrection of Arletty, and the joyous reunion of a long-sundered couple, Little Bob (Roberto Piazza) and Mimie (Myriam “Mimie” Piazza).

“The jar returns to the well until it breaks,” remarks Idrissa’s sage grandfather, and Kaurismäki takes many trips to his familiar fount in Le Havre, from the shameless cutaways to Mademoiselle Laika, the adorable dog now a “fifth-generation actor” in the Finn’s films, to his reliable expressions of disdain for athletics: When Marcel comments that Arletty’s first husband was violent, he quickly adds “et sportif,” as if the two were synonymous. Working with his peerless cinematographer, Timo Salminen, and ever attentive to texture and tonality, Kaurismäki once more composes each image with the eye of a ’50s interior designer, using theatrical lighting to separate figure from ground and to punch up the already saturated colors of flowers and furniture, neon and Naugahyde. (Every interior, from bar and refugee center to home and hospital, seems harmonized in shades of teal and accents of red.) Jean-Pierre Darroussin, the actor who plays the slope-shouldered, black-clad police inspector with a misanthropic heart (belied by its “tender spots”) and a taste for Domaine de Courbissac 2005, remarked at Cannes that “Aki can produce a world out of one or two small objects. Other directors are given the world and produce one or two small objects.” Indeed, the film offers several instances of Kaurismäki’s tabletop bricolage, wondrous still lifes ranging through Chardin, Wayne Thiebaud, and the Jetsons and rendered from little: a taupe saucer holding three olives and a strip of pimiento; a trio of elaborate pastries on a hospital tray; an oblate moderne clock hovering above a violently orange gerbera daisy.

Even for the cinephilic and in-joking Finn, Le Havre is unusually dense with cultural and filmic references: A ship sports the word Sputnik, the name of Aki’s production company; a cherry tree in blossom ends the film with a pronounced nod to Ozu; the inspector’s moniker, Monet, conjures Claude, who grew up in Le Havre; the refugee boy’s first name salutes African filmmaker Idrissa Ouedraogo; Marcel’s mention of his previous bohemian life in Paris recalls Kaurismäki’s La Vie de bohème (1992): In that film, based on the novel that inspired the Puccini opera, which is also half-invoked here by the romantic pairing of actors Roberto and Mimie (felicitously echoing La Bohème’s Rodolfo and Mimì), Wilms first played Marcel, both actor and character twenty years younger. Every second character seems named after a French director or star, and two icons of French cinema, Jean-Pierre Léaud and Pierre Étaix, appear as, respectively, ravaged police informer and kindly doctor (the latter named Becker, after Jacques). The Le Havre setting supplies other allusions, from a reference to Marcel Carné’s fatalistic classic, Le Quai des brumes (Port of Shadows, 1938), which has its own endearing dog, Kiki, to an homage to Jean Vigo’s 1934 L’Atalante, whose honeymoon boat trip departed from the port. (Vigo’s daughter Luce has a cameo as the sandwich vendor who is startled when Marcel orders water. “It’s not for me,” he assures her.)

The stakes in life have always been modest for Kaurismäki: love, well-being, dignity, memory, survival. Whether influenced by Bresson or by his own intensifying sense of mortality, Kaurismäki now tempers his materialism with a sense of the numinous. Unlike Arletty, he still believes in miracles, and proves as much with Le Havre.

Le Havre made its US debut at the New York Film Festival on Oct. 2 and is currently in theaters in New York and Los Angeles.

James Quandt is senior programmer at TIFF Cinematheque in Toronto.