Social Cinema with an Eye for Beauty: 'Le Havre'

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

Le Havre

Director: Aki Kaurismäki
Cast: Kati Outinen, André Wilms
Distributor: Criterion
Rated: NR
Release date: 2012-08-31

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.


In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton

9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton

8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge

7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge

6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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