Social Cinema with an Eye for Beauty

'Le Havre'

by Jose Solis

8 October 2012

This might just be the perfect movie for cinephiles looking to find social cinema that doesn’t shy away from being lovely.
cover art

Le Havre

Director: Aki Kaurismäki
Cast: Kati Outinen, André Wilms

US DVD: 31 Aug 2012

In typical Aki Kaurismäki fashion, Le Havre begins with an offbeat sequence that doesn’t seem to have much to do with the rest of the movie, but essentially contains every single idea to be found in it: we see how a group of people react with utmost indifference to a sudden demise. The movie will then explore the hazards and practicalities of showing no care for anyone in our world other than for those who comprise our personal universes.

André Wilms stars as Marcel Marx, an impoverished shoeshiner living in the port city of Le Havre in Normandy. Last time we saw Marx—not that it makes much of a difference for this movie’s sake—he was an idealistic, still impoverished, poet in 1992’s La Vie de Boheme, yet the only thing carried from this movie to Le Havre is the sense of magical melancholy found in every scene. Said feeling can pretty much help describe the director’s oeuvre which tends to favor quirk over realism.

The one fascinating thing about Kaurismäki’s work—and therefore about Le Havre—is how through quirk and the driest sense of humor imaginable, he often taps into truths and “realities” that other filmmakers fail to find even with nonfiction and more realistic techniques. In this movie, the Finnish master deals with the issues of migration that are leading to some of Europe’s most complicated times. The issues of illegal immigrants and their roles in European society have achieved high visibility in the media due to the fact that, more than ever, they are being tackled by the far right and conservatives as the continent’s major problem. This issue has led to a backlash the likes of with has rarely been seen in European contemporary history and which unironically few filmmakers have dealt with in recent years.

In this enchanting fable, we see how Marcel Marx, whose life is shaken by the sudden illness of his wife Arriety (Kati Outinen), seems to find new purpose when he helps hide young Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) from the authorities. Idrissa is an African immigrant whose first encounter with Marcel has him ask “is this London?”, to what the latter replies regarding how he has a little more swimming to do if he wants to get there. Despite of Marcel’s poverty and his personal problems, he develops a lovely relationship with the child that never turns into a “magical negro” situation, where the immigrant’s life changes the other’s selfish existence. Surprisingly the movie does deal to a certain degree with what can be called “spirituality”, yet this is done with such subtlety that the movie feels more like a Chaplinesque fairy tale than a lesson in morality.

Kaurismäki’s movies have become the rare kind which you recognize instantly just by their color palettes and compositions. Once again the director works with cinematographer Timo Salminen, and unlike some of his most recent works, Le Havre seems to try to be beautiful. Salminen captures the uniqueness in each of the actors’ faces and gives them backgrounds that highlight their non-traditional beauty. One of the last scenes in the film has the feel of a 1940’s glamour picture, but once you see the setting and the situation it feels more like a modern piece of religious art. This has always been Kaurismäki’s greatest talent, his ability to combine politics, social conscious stories and tragedy with a strange sense of hope.

The Criterion Collection has done a superb job in bringing Le Havre to DVD. The two disc set features a beautiful transfer approved by the director. The film has a retro look with colors that wouldn’t be out of place in a Fassbinder or Almodóvar movie. Also included are bonus features like an interview with André Wilms, who has the kind of charming, yet more loquacious, personality in real life as is suggested by the restrain he shows as Marcel. There’s also footage from the 2011 Cannes Film Festival where the movie was awarded the FIPRESCI prize, although it has to be said that there is little fun to be had watching taped press conferences…

Other supplements include a French television interview featuring the cast and crew, an interview with the fascinating Kati Outinen recorded for Finnish television in 2011 and concert footage of the musician featured in the movie. Surprisingly the best bonus feature is the DVD’s booklet which contains a masterful essay by Michael Sicinski in which he points out the direct relation between Robert Bresson and Le Havre. The booklet is also beautiful to behold since it features character portraits created by Manuele Fior.

Le Havre is a reminder of why Aki Kaurismäki is deemed a treasure among filmmakers and this might just be the perfect movie for cinephiles looking to find social cinema that doesn’t shy away from being lovely.

Le Havre


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