It’s absurd understatement to say that Aki Kaurismäki finds humor in unusual places. But then Kaurismäki’s movies are all about absurd understatement, from the chic retro style to the deadpan humor. The Finnish director’s latest effort, “Le Havre,” firmly stays within this consistently amusing, at times miraculous tradition.
No director has been better at proving the truism that good things come in threes: While Kaurismäki’s “Leningrad Cowboys” trilogy (released by Criterion last week) satirizes the downfall of the Soviet iconography and his “Proletariot Trilogy” studied lower-class pariahs, “Le Havre” initiates a new cycle of movies set by the sea. But there’s nothing new about its inimitable blend of comedy and tragedy. The Cannes-acclaimed work (which opens Friday) follows French shoeshiner Marcel Marx (André Wilms) as he copes with his ailing wife and is drawn into a desperate mission to save a young immigrant from the police. Kaurismaki spoke to indieWIRE about his unique style, what the next trilogy might bring and how the challenges of his career have changed over the years.
First of all: Why all the trilogies?
I’m so bloody lazy that I have to tell everybody I make trilogies. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t do anything but play cards. But the kind of plan I have will take 10 years. It’s called “The Harbor Town” trilogy. I even have a name for the next one. It’s called “The Barber of Vigo.” Vigo is a harbor town is Galicia, Spain. That’s all I know. So I’ll make another in five years and a third in 10 years so I can retire.
Do you find it harder to make movies now?
Yes, it’s quite different from when I was younger and the fastest filmmaker in the world. I was even faster than Tsui Hark, who was bloody fast. I was certainly faster than Jim Jarmusch. Now he’s becoming faster than me, which is a bit worrisome, but not enough for me to speed up. I think I’ve said mostly what I had to do say. I have no ambition to rush.
So many of your films revolve around working class characters in life-changing predicaments. How do you avoid writing the same people over and over again?
Well, look at Howard Hawks. Is John Wayne the same person in “Rio Bravo” and “El Dorado”? Is he playing himself? I always go to Howard Hawks when I’m asked about using the same characters, actors and situations. Or Ken Loach, he’s always doing the same kinds of films. Also, I’m not interested in the upper class. I don’t know how to write dialogue for them. I don’t know how they talk. I’ve always been working, working, working, so those are the characters I know. And I don’t travel so much.
And you don’t come to the U.S. very often anymore.
I love New York. It was my favorite always, but my passport doesn’t have my fingerprints on it, so I can’t get in. And they want to take a photo of my eyes, which I don’t want. I’ll be watched on every street corner. I’m a bit protective of my privacy.
Your movies often pay homage to older American movies. What do you think of recent ones?
Modern Hollywood, to me, is a shame, but independent movies are getting better and better. I’m a big fan of old Hollywood. I’ve been influenced by everything going back to “The Great Train Robbery.” And Bogart’s technique, and Raoul Walsh. You name it, I’m a fan of it. But that kind of Hollywood has vanished.
How do you know when a scene you’ve shot is funny?
I have a theory about what’s funny and what’s not, but it doesn’t always work with the audience. I think with this one it works quite a lot, but I’ve made several films where people laugh at the sad moments and cry at the funny moments, and it was a bit surprising. But it doesn’t matter. If someone cried, it’s OK. Who am I to say when to laugh or cry?
Is “Le Havre” a personal film for you?
This is not a very personal film. I have tried to put my skill of the last 30 years to make a film that a Chinese lady could understand without any subtitles.
Do you think you’ve accomplished that here?
Yes, with the normal mistakes I always make. But I was very happy with this film because people were coming out of it feeling happy.
In another recent interview, you said that in the scene where police discover the immigrant in hiding, you wanted to surround him with the bodies of dead relatives. Why did you change your mind?
There’s a serious a problem with immigrants suffering in forgotten containers while traveling 120 kilometers or more. They can die there. I didn’t want to face that problem because I was making an uplifting film. When there’s no hope, there’s no reason to be pessimistic anymore.
Do you see any major changes between the climate for making movies in Finland now and when you first started?
I don’t. I’ve always worked with the money I had. We didn’t have salaries during the first 10 years, but nobody had any money either. I’ve always walked my own path.
“Le Havre” was chosen as Finland’s Oscar submission for Best Foreign Language Film this year. When “The Man Without a Past” was nominated, you refused to attend because you opposed the Iraq war. If nominated this year, would you still voice your opposition?
At that time, it was hopeless, because the war was starting and everyone knew it, so I wasn’t really in a party mood. Now it’s different because the government, Cheney, Wolfowitz, those idiots are all out. The United States have a democratic government. I don’t know if it’s a good or bad government, but my boycott is over.
There’s no question that you’re a critical darling, but how important is it for you that your films perform well?
I’m a producer, so of course I get the box office numbers every Monday morning. I hope for the best. There isn’t any sex or drugs so my expectations aren’t too high, but I trust a lot of adult audiences with civilized tastes. That’s why my budgets are so reasonable. I’m always happy when people watch my films, but I’m not a skyscraper.