Le Havre (2011)
Le Havre(FIN/GE/FR) Directed by Aki Kaurasmaki Written by Aki Kaurismaki Starrring Andre’ Wilms; Kati Outinen; Jean Pierre Leaud; Jean-Pierre Darroussin; Elina Salo; Evelybe Did; Quoc Dung Nguyen
Fifty five year old Fin Aki Kaurismaki has been crafting his own brand of stylized oddness for over thirty years. His oeuvre is nothing if not a study in auteur film-making - the tone varying little from film to film, although somehow the master manages to mine new and interesting facets of the human condition each time out the box.
Kaurismaki revels in dry line readings spoken by sad-faced characters who seem mostly devoid of human emotion. His films play out methodically, as if by their form he were holding a mirror to the lives of drudgery he portrays, and yet the pacing is never plodding. His doleful characters confront all sorts of hardships - death, imprisonment, abandonment, unemployment, and heartbreak - as they travel through a cold and cruel world that seems to offer little hope or relief, yet they are usually blessed with a kind of gallows humor that removes self-pity from the equation and fights off any encroachment of melodrama into the proceedings. .
The tonal line Kaurismaki walks is still a fine one, and he encounters the same potential pitfalls as directors like Hal Hartley; Whit Stillman; and Wes Anderson, who all share a love for jokes and observations delivered in a stone-faced, monotone manner. Kaurismaki continues to emerge unscathed, however, as unfailingly he grounds his characters with just enough recognizably plausible behavior to allow their humanity to seep through the cracks. In this way, his well-chosen casts consistently come across as something far greater than a mere collection of pre-programmed robots speaking words written on a page.
These same subjects Kaurismaki places in the middle of his serio-comic social tragedies are often out of work, or marginally employed blue collar losers, who seem so depressed, so beaten down, that they can barely keep their eyes open. As removed from life lived as most of them seem to be there is something all too human about the way they experience the down-troddeness of it all as they absorb yet another of the cruel blows life throws at them. It is only Kaurismaki’s assured hand that allows us to smile at their pathos, because he never condescends or mocks these characters, showing us their pettiness and small-time existence, but hinting at the desires that loom below the surface of their stony facades.
InLe Havre, we see several of the director’s favorite actors - Andre Wilms (Juha; La Vie De Boheme) as shoeshine man Marcel Marx; Kati Outinen (Lights in the Dusk; The Man Without a Past; Juha; Drifting Clouds) as wife Ariettty, and in a supporting role, Jean Pierre Leaud (la Vie de Bohemme; I Hired a Contract Killer)as le denonciateur. Taking place in the titular shipping town (a departure from the director’s usual Finnish environs). the plot involves the Don Quixote-like Marx’s attempt to assist a young African immigrant child Idrissa (BlondinMiguel), who is wanted by authorities for entering the country illegally, while his sick wife faces an uncertain fate in the hospital.
The film obviously has very real implications in today’s world, examining issues having to do with a smaller global economy (particularly in a relatively newly open Europe). Kaurismaki’s pro working class leanings are obvious, but in the past he almost always infuses his films with elements of neo-noir, including random acts of violence, that take him away from the realm of strict social realism. The look in his films too is one of hyper reality, eschewing verite’ and/or a grittier documentary-like aesthetic for one enhanced by primary colors that fly in the face of the bleak surroundings depicted. Here, we see a slightly more obviously politicized story, and some of the nihilistic elements usually at play are minimized.
Like most of his previous films, Kaurismaki’slatest is both slight and meaningful; simple and layered; depressing but ultimately hopeful - perhaps even more so here than usual. While the implications of prejudice and xenophobia are in play, so too are prescient concepts having to do with community, and finding one’s joy in the people and things closest to us, and in that way the film has the whimsical, fairy-tale like feel of something Jean Pierre Jeunet might have come up with. Might it be that we even see a metaphorical grin showing? If so, one can picture Kaurismaki quickly wiping it away, lest we surmise that he’s gone soft.