July 31, 2012


by Vadim Rizov

Le Havre

Fatalist Finn Aki Kaurismäki's Le Havre is a comic-strip-colored take on France's inability to find a humane response to an illegal immigrant influx. The story follows the familiar contours of old-man-softened-by-young-boy sagas: shoeshiner Marcel Marx (André Wilms) helps stranded Gabonese youth Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) evade the law and make it to London. Soothing turquoise paint covers the walls, natural light floods the outdoors and Kaurismäki's usual taciturn deadpan comedy is swapped out for brisk dialogue bonding sessions. It's a change of pace for Kaurismäki, who—like the early work of aesthetic fellow traveler/friend Jim Jarmusch—prefers jokes that don't noticeably raise the surface temperature. Having effectively exhausted this mode into self-parody in his last feature (2006's Lights in the Dusk), Le Havre represents a major, much-needed artistic reset.

Marcel was a feckless unpublished writer in Kaurismäki's 1992 travesty of French artistic dissolution La Vie de Boheme. 20 years older, he's no more stable or worse off for aspiring to nothing more than subsisting in his quasi-licit trade. Across town, black-raincoat-wearing Inspector Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) is called down to the docks, one of the authorities on the scene when an officer taps a seemingly empty crate with a nightstick and provokes a baby's crying. Rather than immediately unsealing the crate and getting some air in, a full containment task force is brought in. Idrissa runs away from the cops as Monet reprovingly stops one from shooting him down. "Are you insane?" he chides. "He's just a kid." Marcel discovers Idrissa hiding in the water and takes law-disregarding charge.

Le Havre

Unmediated reality only incurs in one scene, a 2009 TV news report of how the French government bludgeoningly dismantled a refugee camp dubbed "The Jungle." This authoritarian event was documented at length in Sylvain George's 2011 Figures of War (May They Rest in Revolt), a harsh 150-minute immersion in French refugee life that actively withheld points of identification, adamantly resisting the idea that people should be made to care about a humanitarian problem primarily through empathy. In one memorable sequence, a man waiting to sneak away speaks while scouring every truck which stops at an intersection to see if there's crawl space underneath to hang onto: his status as someone whose existence depends on constant disappearance, who can't stand in one place long enough to be related to, is the point.

Some of the raid is shown in Le Havre, the TV glared at with taciturn disapproval by the perpetual barflies at Marcel's local. The rest of Le Havre is unabashed fantasy, with the community pulling together to preserve basic human decency and cross-cultural pollination. Idrissa is unfailing polite, doing Marcel's dishes and addressing him as "sir." "My, my, a civilized family," Marcel notes. "My father was a teacher," Idrissa replies. This is the exact opposite of Figures of War's rigorous position, and it's an uneasy concept: if Idrissa wasn't wide-eyed and possessed of faultless manners, would he still deserve to be helped?

Le Havre

Neighbors pull together to do the right thing, implicitly hearkening back to the French Resistance. Everyone's ready to pull together at a moment's notice, save a neighborhood informer (Jean-Pierre Leaud) who spies on Marcel from his second-floor-window and calls the cops. The implicit ties to the Resistance—law-breakers and lawmen coming together for a higher moral cause despite the surrounding treacherous complicity with an unjust authority—seem meant to remind viewers that that allegedly pure cause was a comforting white-washed myth for post-war French trying to reassure themselves everyone was on the right side, and an invitation bring their own skepticism to this unabashed piece of wishful thinking.

For Kaurismäki, figuring out a humane response to an immigration process isn't just a political imperative but a cultural necessity. Like Jarmusch, he feels life just isn't as interesting without a constant stream of odd-looking people of all nationalities. The film's deadest sequence is a benefit concert held on Idrissa's behalf by Italian-born Roberto Piazza, aka "Little Bob," a French cult hero singing rockabilly in English. The musical number falls flat if you're not interested in unexceptional revivalist rock, but it exemplifies Kaurismäki's long-standing interest in dissolving national borders in favor of something like a pop culture international front.

Le Havre

In his '60s, Kaurismäki is, unexpectedly, becoming the reigning master of feel-good movies that don't coast on unearned sentiment. Wilms' brisk, unflappable good cheer sets the tone for Le Havre. In his Leningrad Cowboys trilogy, Kaurismäki stared down the end of the Cold War and the seemingly-inevitable-but-uncomfortable drawing together of new geopolitical neighbors with confrontational sarcasm. Here, confronting a problem beyond ideology, his approach is softer and more wistful, an ideal tonic for viewers in a bad mood, his sporadically manifested sentimental streak acquiring new urgency and resonance in the face of crisis.

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Posted by ahillis at July 31, 2012 3:01 PM