Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Le Havre

The first in a trilogy of stories about life in port cities, the award-winning Le Havre, by the celebrated Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki, features some familiar themes and characters from his earlier films, but these re-enforce rather than repeat ideas about experience outside the mainstream.

Widely recognized today as one of the leading talents in Finnish cinema, Aki Kaurismäki has built a career on highly stylized portraits of marginalised communities and individuals. Emerging as a powerful force in the early 1980s when he started making films with his brother Mika, the two drew inspiration as much from their experiences working menial jobs and drinking in tawdry bars as they did from French New Wave directors like Godard and Truffaut. While Kaurismäki’s films initially drew criticism from Finnish contemporaries, his droll and affectionate depictions of unsophisticated outsiders (roles which often gain sympathy from European cinema audiences) soon won critical acclaim, particularly abroad and especially in France. Le Havre then, a film about a shoe-polisher who risks everything to help a young Senegalese boy refugee gain safe passage to London to find his family (opening this Friday, April 6th at the IFI), sits comfortably alongside Kaurismäki’s other seriocomic titles such as The Match Factory Girl, La Vie de Bohème and The Man without a Past.

As well as using the same group of actors in his films (“why bother with new actors when the ones you have can do the job?”, he asked in an interview in 2003), Kaurismäki’s films are also marked by dead-pan performances, a feature which has drawn comparisons with directors ranging from Bertolt Brecht to Jim Jarmusch. Actors, Kaurismäki explains, are forbidden from laughing or shouting during takes. This controlled aspect to his work is exaggerated by the precise language with which Kaurismäki writes his scripts, a fact demonstrated in the scene where Marcel Marx, the protagonist in Le Havre, is asked if he’s taking the evening train home to which he responds, “Of course. Money moves in the shadows.” 

While the actors themselves are deprived of laughter, Kaurismäki’s films are often comical, displaying the director’s appreciation for the absurd which he effectively highlights in the form of visual gags. There is no shortage of the ridiculous in Le Havre, particularly in the scene where Jean-Pierre Darroussin’s poker-faced Inspector Monet, dressed head to toe in black, inexplicably buys a pineapple on his way to a bar, where, upon entering, he casts a lengthy stare at the silenced crowd and then sits at a table alone. When the world weary barmaid facetiously asks if the tropical fruit is for her, Monet unsmilingly answers, “Non”.

The pineapple is a good example of Kaurismäki’s ingenious use of props to generate comedy but his deliberate placement of particular objects is also used to convey some aspect of the uniquely retro environments in which these characters live. Kaurismäki has confessed that he is searching for “the perfect red kettle”, the Japanese director Ozu’s signature prop, and this goes some way towards explaining the recurring appearance of juke boxes and record players in all his films (besides the unmistakably nostalgic quality that both these objects possess). Kaurismäki also makes a point of drawing our attention to his characters’ unsophisticated diet; there’s a shot devoted to the small dish of three olives that Marcel devours with hasty gulps of white wine, the camera lingers on the enormous cream pastries that sit untouched beside his wife Arletty’s hospital bed and boiled eggs feature in almost every interior scene. Similarly, the costumes in Le Havre, designed by Frédéric Cambier, are not quite outdated enough that they are not believably contemporary but they are reminiscent of a particular trend in 1980s France for motorbike fashion; sleeveless denim waistcoats, silver chains, black leather jackets, and ill-fitting high-waisted jeans all of which are set off by mullets and sideburns. Needless to say, this does not apply to the women in the film. In contrast, they are dressed in elegant clothes that have nevertheless seen better days. 

All of these details are used to conjure up what critics elsewhere have described as a half-invented reality, half-imagined vision of the past but whatever the case, cumulatively, they represent what A.O. Scott describes in his New York Times review of the film as “almost defiantly antiquarian, a protest against the speed and slickness of the digital age.” As well as this, Kaurismäki’s films can also be read as critiques of modernization and all that it implies. In Le Havre, Marcel is the classic Kaurismäki protagonist; an outcast unable to take part in commercial exchange of any value. Marcel’s previous role as what he describes in the film as a bohemian in Paris reaped only ‘artistic’ success. With no marketable skill, he now works on the street, shining shoes for tips, but even this trade is outdated – fewer people wear leather shoes and even less stop on the street to have them polished. In one scene in the film, a shoe shop-keeper violently objects to Marcel’s presence outside his business. Because Marcel has no licence to work he has no means of defending himself and is forced to move on. In just a couple of scenes Kaurismäki offers us justification for his rejection of the capitalist values inherent in contemporary culture. However, while Kaurismäki makes these political sentiments apparent, they feature more as undercurrents than as any explicit element of the story. The film’s main objective is to convey the quasi-communist values displayed by Marcel and his tiny community of barflies, street workers and backstreet shop-owners in an effort to stress the importance of egalitarianism, hospitality, loyalty and protection. It is no coincidence then that Kaurismäki chose to set the film in Le Havre, a town with a distinctly socialist history, originally called Le Havre de Grâce or The Haven of Grace. 

Alice Butler

Le Havre opens this Friday, April 6th - 19th at the IFI. For more information and bookings, please contact our box Office on 01 679 3477, or book online: http://www.ifi.ie/film/le-havre/.

Watch film trailer here: 

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