Aki Kaurismäki is the cinema’s hardest working modernist, a director for whom a commitment to a particular aesthetic universe and a singular style has provided an incredibly fertile landscape in which to explore a variety of stories. Typically, Kaurismäki dabbles in darkly comic, noirish tales of heartbreak and triumph that are distinguished by their flat, presentational performances and gorgeous, painterly compositions. And, equally typically, the Finnish director aims his satirical eye at the Scandinavian cultures, focusing on the working class underbelly of those proudly inclusive nations. But in his surprisingly charming new film Le Havre, Kaurismäki heads to the titular port city in France to explore something bigger than his usual concerns; the shared interests and alliances between working class people and Europe’s ever-expanding immigrant communities.
Le Havre is the story of Marcel Marx (André Wilms), a shoeshine working the streets of the city by day and enjoying the stability of a long, happy marriage to Arletty (Kati Outinen, who fans will remember from The Man Without A Past) by night. During one of his lunch breaks, Marcel encounters Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), an undocumented migrant boy from Francophone Africa who escaped the clutches of local authorities when the shipping container in which he and his family were stowed away was mistakenly delivered to Le Havre instead of England. Marcel soon offers Idrissa shelter from local law enforcement, lead by detective Monet (Jean-Pierre Daroussin, who is pure Kaurismaäki; noir, deadpan and hilarious), whose search for the missing boy will lead him to Marcel’s doorstep. But with Arletty in the hospital and Idrissa having a mind of his own, Marcel begins to depend on his small community of friends– the owner of the local boulangerie, the café proprietress and the local green grocer– to help him meet his familial obligations while searching for a way to reunite Idrissa with his family in England. The resulting solution is so hilarious, so perfectly Kaurismäki, I will refrain from spilling the beans here. Needless to say, happy endings are indeed possible and seemingly pre-determined by fate and the power of miracles.
Like most of Kaurismäki’s films, every frame of Le Havre is beautifully designed and stripped to its essentials, allowing the sumptuous lighting to give the movie a classic sensibility. It is this modernist aesthetic, and here I mean modernist in the literal sense, that allows Kaurismäki’s irony the space to resonate; there may be no shoeshine in the history of movies with such a beautiful collection of mid-century objects. The analogue clocks on the walls, the rotary telephones, the period vases that hold a single flower, the furniture, the appliances– Kaurismäki’s world is completely, wonderfully anomalous to contemporary life without being “period” in any true sense of the word. The cinematography and lighting design, created once again by longtime Kaurismäki cinematographer Timo Salminen, could come straight out of, say, Rudolph Maté’s D.O.A, but they also carry a painterly warmth that would not be out of the place in the work of Edward Hopper. It is a treat to see these choices put in service of the lives of working people, whose lives, dilemmas and passions are heightened by their location within Kaurismäki’s dramatic universe.
But Le Havre is about more than simply inserting everyday life into a specific aesthetic universe; it is also about politics, about community and responsibility, about the need for Europeans to embrace the changing faces of their societies. The film, which premiered at Cannes this year, comes at a frightening time for European politics; arriving in the midst of economic trouble in the eurozone countries (a group to which Finland and France both belong), with austerity measures clashing with immigration laws and cultural assimilation and with the looming threat of continued political violence like the tragic attacks in Norway this past summer, Le Havre is a much more daring film than its warm surfaces may suggest. It is a bold statement in many ways, a deeply ironic distillation of cultures in crisis. By placing this story in the midst of a working class community, by aligning the interests of immigrants and natives against the authorities and making an argument for a humanist approach to cultural identity, Kaurismäki shows the just how deep his particular brand of satire can cut. Le Havre is a savvy play for hearts and minds, a daring piece of art, expertly made, that understands what is at stake for Europe but which, in the tradition of the best gallows humor, still finds a way to smile in spite of it all.