Sunday, October 9, 2011

Le Havre

Kaurismäki at Cannes, 2011

LE HAVRE                B                   
Finland  France  Germany  (93 mi)  2011  d:  Aki Kaurismäki

Hard to fathom how this was the highest graded film coming out of Cannes this year, as this movie is not nearly as much fun or as ingeniously clever as the last Kaurismäki film, LIGHTS IN THE DUSK (2006), an absurdly rich comedy where Helsinki never looked so bleak and depressingly gloomy.  This offering, on the other hand, feels light as a feather, set entirely in France, where the Kaurismäki staple of deadpan characters are actually forced to speak a kind of phonetic French, one of the choice Romance languages instead of that miserablist tone of the near incomprehensible Finnish tongue.  This may be an inside joke of some kind, but it typifies what’s different about this film.  André Wilms as Marcel Marx is the star of the show, sounding like a performing act at a circus, but in reality he’s an aging street vender who offers on-the-spot shoeshines in the port city of Le Havre, a man living day by day whose life is a ritual of recycled routines, telling stories all day to anyone who would listen, returning home to his loving wife (Kati Outinen) and adoring dog Laïka, enjoying dinner with a glass or two of wine, followed by an aperitif or two afterwards in the neighborhood bar, money permitting.  What may seem like a habit is the life he relishes, where he meets the same group of friends in the bars every day, feeling very much like he has what Voltaire describes in Candide as the best of all possible worlds.  This is perfectly expressed in the opening sequence where a stern-faced Finn gets a quick shine before making a fast exit, as we hear the sound of gunshots and a screeching car offscreen, but thankfully he paid his bill before his untimely demise. 

Marcel quite by accident stumbles across a large shipping container at the harbor housing illegal immigrants, one of whom he discovers hiding in the water, Idrissa (as in Burkina Faso African director Idrissa Ouedraogo, played by Blondin Miguel), an African kid who lost contact with his adult relatives who were arrested and detained in refugee centers, one appropriately named Mahmet Saleh, another African filmmaker from Chad who has been living in France since 1982.  As fate would have it, Marcel vows to set matters straight and agrees to hide the kid, despite a myriad of public snitches, like Jean-Pierre Léaud keeping the neighborhood safe as the “Denouncer,” various police spies, and even a meticulous police inspector named Monet, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, who is charming and personable as he hounds your every step, performing interrogations over a glass of port in neighborhood bars.  This turns into a cat and mouse shell game of deceit and misdirection, amusing as stories go, but nothing earth shattering, and not nearly as intriguing as the more typical Kaurismäki.  Much more interesting than the lead story are the Kaurismäki side characters who just aren’t seen in any other films, like the barhounds who all resemble aging hipsters and rock ‘n’ roll stalwarts, the guys that fronted bar bands decades ago who never lost their love of hanging out in bars, where their lives are one non-stop sentence that never ends, like a discussion on the proper way to cook scallops, as they’re continually seen carrying on conversations that they’ve probably been having for years.

Kaurismäki bathes the screen in artificial lighting, where pastels and turquoise in particular seem to stand out in the colorful clapboard houses or café’s located near the wharf, adding a touch of whimsy to his stylization.  There is a romantic tone to it all, where the rising strings of Tchaikovsky have been replaced by the lush sounds of Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara.  This is easily the most commercial Kaurismäki film on record, all tastefully designed to elicit fun and pleasure, showing little of the scathing commentary on Finnish society for which he is renowned.  Despite a few harrowing moments of realism which are rightly underplayed, this is mostly a sunny affair, featuring plenty of eclectic songs from scratchy old LP records, including several blues greats like Bessie Smith and Blind Willie Johnson.  Unforgettable moments include the reading out loud of Kafka at the bedside of a hospital patient as an inspirational source to get well quick and the appearance of Little Bob (aka Roberto Piazza), an aging rock ‘n’ roller who performs an electrifying live act as the headliner of a highly successful fundraiser to help reunite Idrissa with his mother in London.  But mostly this is a film of tender moments that pays tribute to a lifelong love of cinema, offering a slightly absurdist view of cops and immigration officials that recalls the age of Chaplin when his Little Tramp was colorfully eluding them as well, where authority figures for the past century have made easy targets for humor.  Darroussin’s amusing portrayal recalls Claude Rains as Captain Louis Renault in CASABLANCA (1942), a shamelessly corrupt official who has his nose in everyone’s affairs, who routinely plays both sides against one another during the war, but who’s shown in the end to have a heart of gold, the kind of character who might show up in a Kaurismäki film shot in France more than half a century later.  Inexplicably, this film was the winner of the 1st Prize Best Film at the Chicago Film Festival, “for the mastery of film director Aki Kaurismäki and his stylized yet very humane depiction of illegal immigration.”

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