Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre starts like a caper film: two shoe-shiners stand at a railway station, waves of sneakers passing by. Then, a fine pair of leather oxfords stops before them. The camera tilts up to a man handcuffed to a briefcase, and, with his eyes darting around suspiciously, he lifts his shoe for a polish. He rushes off, and moments later we hear a gunshot. The churlish Marcel Marx (André Wilms) shrugs, “Well, at least I got paid first.”
True to Kaurismäki’s understated style, the setup runs into the blunt end of a deadpan joke; for nearly thirty years, his films have been less concerned with extraordinary events than the downtrodden people who impassively observe them. Quick to avoid the approaching police, Marcel closes up shop and ambles home, brushing off the incident as he does his grocer’s complaints of unpaid bills. Marcel stops in to greet his Finnish wife, Arletty (played by longtime Kaurismäki regular Kati Outinen), who feeds him and demurely sends him off with a few coins to the local dive. “Foreigners see bums in a more romantic light,” mutters Yvette, the bar owner, regarding Marcel, but if the neighbors disapprove of this one-time Parisian bohemian, Marcel doesn’t seem to care. Here in the port city of Le Havre, in a dingy quarter left untouched after the war and the rest of the modernizing world, they’ve long put up with each other in grumbling complacence. Read Genevieve Yue’s review of Le Havre, opening this Friday in New York and L.A. from Janus Films.