Le Havre

Something a little bit miraculous happens while you watch Aki Kaurismaki’s Le Havre. The film is effortlessly engrossing without ever hitting the marks one might expect in a film about such emotive subject matter. In the eponymous French port, a defeated writer, Marcel Marx (André Wilms), now eking out a living shining shoes, takes in a Gabonese child fleeing the immigration authorities, and goes to great lengths to ensure the child’s safety.

There is plenty of scope here for histrionics. Marcel’s wife is terminally ill but doesn’t want him to find out: his doting obliviousness sets us up for the inevitable crushing blow when he finds out the truth; the central conceit is of illegal immigrants in shipping containers: a boy, Idrissa, makes a run for it, and is sheltered by Marcel Marx, assisted by the local shopkeepers; a dour detective is on the trail. None of these things build to the emotional or suspenseful climaxes one might expect. When Marcel has to raise €3000 to buy passage across the English Channel for Idrissa, he organizes a charity concert, but he has to persuade Little Bob to come out of retirement and put his band back together. This all takes place and is resolved in a few minutes of screen time. It is suggested that a large crowd shows up, but we never see them. We hear appreciative cheers as Bob rocks out, but the crowd, the mass, is always elided in a film that shows how the collective work of a community relies upon wholly individual actions.

I already love the feel of towns like Le Havre, those places on the edge of the nation (both geographically and figuratively), where there is no border, just the blank, freeing expanse of the sea. Sure, there’s another border on the other side of that sea, but there’s something thrillingly hopeful about living next to a pure horizon. The image of the town in the film, though, is not the one proffered by the tourist board of Le Havre: they want you to imagine it as a modern, romantic, art-historical Normandic cultural hub. Id be interested to see if they plan to exploit the film to bring tourists in – I certainly want to visit now, but Kaurismaki’s Le Havre is locked in a rockabilly past of perpetual barflies and lovely shopkeepers; all very friendly, but not an enticement to an exciting holiday.
What Kaurismaki does bend out of shape is the stereotype of the small town as a conservative, closed shop of narrow minds and local protectionism. He has it both ways. This is a town whose inhabitants (or at least the ones upon whom the film is focused) are old-fashioned, set in their ways and out of step with modernity (the opening scenes of Marcel trying to make some cash shining shoes for busy commuters is a textbook bit of business to illustrate this), and yet our protagonist unquestioningly takes on responsibility for an immigrant child, that wide-eyed innocent cipher for a tabloid-baiting hot-button issue.
In Kaurismaki’s world, the discovery of a ship’s container full of trafficked Gabonese people is met with uncritical determination by Marcel and his friends: he takes personal risks on behalf of Idrissa, the boy he shelters and ultimately attempts to help escape the authorities, and we have only the slightest inkling of how he has come to feel such strong empathy that he will put himself in financial and physical danger on behalf of someone he has just met. Maybe it is because he feels that he, too, has been driven to Le Havre against his will, and feels some common cause with the migrant Africans, or maybe he’s a natural rebel, or maybe he’s displacing anxieties about his ill wife onto a problem he feels like he can alleviate. A different director might have played out Marcel’s story as an incremental awakening, gradually setting aside his prejudices and arriving at the eternal truism that social problems take on a new meaning as soon as they become more personal, less abstract, but Kaurismaki is even less interested in grandiose sociological posturing than he is in realistic depictions of the film’s setting.

Kaurismaki doesn’t just observe Le Havre: he transforms it with an understated but utterly precise colour palette that romanticizes the place without resorting to any of the soft-focus distortions that might usually be required to effect such a gloss. The miracle, then, is that this understatement, under-acting and generously positive outcomes for everyone concerned produce such a wholly adorable film; even the sudden turnaround in fortunes at the end doesn’t seem cloying or contrived, because it’s all part of the fabric of the film, which strikes up a perfectly complementary aesthetic for each of its components – I swear Kaurismaki has managed to make his dialogue set the slow pulse of the editing, or his actors’ performances match the wallpaper. His mise-en-scene is fully realized, his world distinctive without being shut off from reality. Inside the rather grey town that we see in the opening shots, Kaurismaki carves out a small haven of colour and character, to the point where Marcel matches the decor of his home.

This is not just about a director exerting his fussy particularities on a location, but the stylistic consolidation of the character’s almost unwitting sense of belonging to this place. At some points I nearly fell for the interpretation that all of this goodness, emphasised by the outwardly expressive, empathetic relationship the protagonists have even with their own walls and floors, might just be Marcel’s deludedly optimistic imaginings, or that the sunny hopefulness of the film (which borders on a cross between In This World and Balamory) is a deliberate incongruity designed satirically to remind us that the world is never like this, and people are never this unquestionably good. But I don’t think that’s what Kaurismaki is about. Goodness gradually seeps into the fabric of the film and colours it, because being “good”, i.e. helping others out of a bad situation is not to be thought of as any kind of moral crisis or dilemma: Marcel’s problems are all the practicalities of shielding Idrissa from the law, not from agonising over the ethics of the issue. When we think of illegal immigration as a “complex problem”, the end product of a nexus of geopolitical manoeuvres that dispossess and displace those at the bottom of the chain, we obfuscate the needs of the people caught up in the system. Kaurismaki spells out, in vivid tones and straightforward dramatic beats, the simple truth that being good is not such a big deal.

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3 thoughts on “Le Havre

  1. Dan,

    Lovely summing up of the essence of “Le Havre” (if a film as rich can be reduced to any essence, that is) – kindness, pure and simple. I’m not even sure one can talk much about empathy, as I don’t know how much any of the characters bothers to try to put him or herself into anyone else’s shoes. People need help, they are given help, and that’s that, no need for more. Simplicity can be more profound than complexity. (Some of the allure of silent cinema hinges on that.)

    I also liked the contrast between the official world of rules and regulations and how people actually get by on the sidelines – in the very gentle mocking tones of pre-Nouvelle Vague French cinema or perhaps even a touch of the old Ealing comedies (I am suddenly imagining Alec Guinness as Max, and it jars but works at the same time).

    But one of the things that caught me most, on first view, was the constant sly winks to French cinema and Frenchiness in general, which I think go a long way towards establishing the film’s real-yet-unreal (and vice-versa) atmosphere. The old rockabillies you mention are surely the spirit of the Leningrad Cowboys blessing the movie; all the same, they are quintessentially French. I’ll have to watch it again, and have a much needed catch up on Clair, Renoir and Carné before I can point out more specific things that made me think of that period, but I’d just like to bring up the wonderful choice of Jean-Pierre Léaud – professional rebel Antoine Doinel! – to play the role he played…

    • Hi, Sergio. I like the Ealing comparison, and the French references are intriguing. I’d seen Little Bob somewhere before, but couldn’t remember where. He’s kind of a fondly remembered but rather silly figure to a lot of French people, so to give him such a role in the film, where he provides a romantic narration in the song that opens and closes the film, is very generous.

      • Indeed, and maybe even more than generous? Your comment has just made me wonder if Kaurismaki wasn’t siding with the popular, however makeshift, v top-down organisation, not a million miles away from Tati’s sentiment from “Mon Oncle” and “Play time” (though I have to warn you that I tend to see echoes of “Play time” everywhere)…

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