Aki Kaurismaki, the director of Le Havre, which I watched last night, once said, ‘I think the more pessimistic I feel about life, the more optimistic the films should be. Life is too sad to bear and there is no hope for anyone. So now, let us drink to happy endings’. It’s a sentiment which encapsulates and justifies the film’s odd, out-of-kilter feel: bleak, yet bathed in the rose-tinted glow of human kindness.
For odd, take the scene where a police inspector named Monet walks into a bar holding a pineapple. For bleak, see the film’s portrayal of armed police pursuing an African child refugee through the lower depths of Le Havre’s docklands. For rose-tinted, consider the film as an extended paean to civil disobedience, community solidarity and the most miraculous of happy endings.
All the key elements of a Kaurismaki film are here: the stagey composition, saturated colour, mannered gestures and minimal dialogue. As always, Kaurismaki populates his film with characters who struggle with the day-to-day hardships of poverty, tedious work, and boredom – getting by in lugubrious hours spent in bars, drinking too much. Typically, though, the darkness is dispersed a little by shafts of deadpan comedy – and by the milk of human kindness.
Marcel Marx (André Wilms), is a one time bohemian and struggling author who has given up his literary ambitions and now plies his trade as a shoeshine in the port of Le Havre. His wife, Arletty (played by Kaurismaki regular, Kati Outinen) is in hospital with terminal cancer. Marcel meets and befriends a young African refugee Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) who has escaped when the rest of his stowaway family were discovered sealed in a cargo container in the port.
Marcel decides to help Idrissa, feeding and hiding him at home, and raising money so that he can reach his mother in London where she works in a Chinese laundrette. Marcel enlists the support of his neighbours who unite in solidarity to resist the state (in France to shelter an illegal migrant is punishable by law). The local greengrocer provides free food, the baker fills his arms with baguettes and hides Idrissa in her home when the police mount a search of Marcel’s home, and a fellow Vietnamese shoeshine helps him organise a fundraising concert. Writing in Slate, David Edelstein has noted that Kaurismaki’s films are ‘anchored in anti-authoritarianism and the realities of class’. This is a tale of collective defiance and pure altruism to which not even police inspector Monet is immune: hence the pineapple.
Kaurismaki’s greatest love is French cinema of the pre- and post-Second World War years. Le Havre, shot entirely in France, and his first film in French, is a homage to the films (and music) of that period. The film has echoes of Robert Bresson’s style, and celebrates les petits gens, the kindly ordinary people who populate the 1930s films of Jean Renoir, Rene Clair and Marcel Carné. Names of characters are significant: Marcel for Carne, Arletty for the working-class actress and singer of the 1930s. That Marcel’s surname is Marx can be no accident, while the police inspector (who dresses like a cop in a Melville thriller) is surreally blessed with the name Monet. Two stars of the French Nouvelle Vague – Jean-Pierre Léaud (remembered for his lead roles in several Truffaut films) and Pierre Etaix (who worked with Jacques Tati and Robert Bresson) – have small parts.
There are two moments that stand out in my recollection of the film, and which speak of its powerful humanist sensibility. The first is when the police open the shipping container to reveal the African stowaways hidden inside. Kaurismaki has the camera linger on the individual faces of the Gabonese refugees, giving each of them, though their stories remain untold, an undeniable dignity and humanity. Their mute stares suggest lives ignored; they look out at us, challenging our European attitudes to immigrants. Later, Idrissa is caught standing motionless before Marcel’s record player, listening intently to the words of Blind Willie McTell’s ‘Statesboro Blues’ which speak directly to his own experience:
My mother died and left me reckless, my daddy died and left me wild, wild, wild
Mother died and left me reckless, daddy died and left me wild, wild, wild
No, I’m not good lookin’, I’m some sweet woman’s angel child …
Woke up this morning, we had them Statesboro blues
I looked over in the corner,
Grandpa and grandma had ’em too.
Despite its deadpan style that many watching it might find off-putting, Le Havre lifts the spirit with its hopeful humanity. Some may also recoil from the film’s unlikely, miraculous conclusion. When asked by Curzon, the distributor of his films in this country, to name his Top 10 films, Kaurismaki included three by the Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu. The final, poetic image has more than a touch of Ozu: a cherry tree blossoms in a slum backyard, symbol that goodness and kindness have yielded a miraculous outcome.
Unrealistic? Utopian? Kaurismaki insists that Le Havre is ‘anyhow unrealistic’. Perhaps another clue lies in the book which Marcel reaches from his bookshelf – Kafka’s Amerika, a saga of immigrants in America about which Theodor Adorno wrote:
The loveliest dream bears like a blemish its difference from reality, the awareness that what it grants is mere illusion.
Unrealistic though its style may be, this may be Kaurismaki’s most politically engaged film (I don’t recall anything before like the use of TV news clips of the clearing of Sangatte refugee camp or the focus on newspaper headlines fanning fears about Al-Qaeda and Islamic immigrants). In an interview for The Guardian, he explained the film’s focus on Europe’s refugee problem:
I read more and more articles, watched more and more TV news about people who have been drowned in the Mediterranean, when they’ve been promised the golden land of Europe. They come full of hopes, and it started to disturb my mind a lot. So what can I do? It’s a film. I might look like a cool guy, but I am most sentimental. I care about others, not too much about myself.
In Le Havre, people perceive their shared plight, suddenly made obvious by the appearance of a small, lost boy from another continent. Their response is selfless. Le Havre is utopian precisely because it shows things as they aren’t.