Le Havre by Kaurismaki: 2011 Best Foreign Films

The sardonic gallery of wastrels and solitary dreamers that populate the movies of cult Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki deploy words as weapons. Stripping language to a pure and lean level is their primary survival mechanism in negotiating the dark travails and absurdities of modern life.

Le Havre world-premiered at the 2011 Cannes Film Fest

 

The superb Andre Wilms beautifully incarnates the craggy and unsentimental benchmark, a poet of the lower depths, in “Le Havre,” the director’s strongest work since “The Man Who Forgot His Past” a decade ago.

 

The typical Kaurismäki protagonist, in such movies as “Shadows in Paradise” or “Hamlet Goes Business,” is a glorious anti-hero and weary romantic who proudly wears his anti-bourgeois sentiment as a rebuke of popular tastes and mass fashions.

 

The new film synthesizes disparate forms and styles that luxuriate in the director’s funhouse of rock and roll, formal beauty and deadpan humor encased by a larger political context. The plot suggests an updating of the Howard Hawks’s 1944 film “To Have and Have Not,” starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, relating a typical Hawksian thread of the reluctant hero drawn into service by his developing conscience to right a grievous wrong.

 

One of thefilm’s marvels is how shrewdly and self-effacingly it pays tribute to the characters, made explicit here by the eccentric presence and outsized characterizations of the various dock workers, merchants, nurses and bar tenders that hover around the proceedings. They imbue the work with a layered, almost musical sense of voices (like all of Kaurismäki’s films, the faces are remarkable, both weathered and evocative).

 

In the movie, Wilms goes by the improbable, fantastic name of Marcel Marx; he’s a writer of local repute known for his extravagant and expensive drinking tastes (“Your bill is as long as the Nile,” says one local merchant), carefully plotted out days and casual refinement. He now lives in exile in the French sea port as a bawdy teller of tales who derives a fanciful income as a shoe shiner.

 

The tone and humor is set right at the start, the camera catching Wilms and his associate from a tilted angle in the midst of trying to get some jobs. A group of mysterious, dangerous figures enter the frame, their motives probably not pure. Just as Marcel completes his work on one of the dapper man in his trench coat, we hear a series of gunshots. “What a poor devil,” Marcel’s friend remarks. It’s good he already paid, Marcel remarks.

 

Marcel is raffish and clever, but he’s clearly in love with his long-suffering and willing-to-put-up with anything wife, Arletty (Kaurismäki regular Kati Outinen ). When illness necessitates Arletty’s hospitalization (she cannily withholds from him just how grave her condition is), Marcel suddenly becomes a man of action. The catalyst is his chance encounter with Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), an illegal African émigré desperate to meet up with his mother in London.

 

Marcel’s opposite number is Inspector Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), the taciturn, world weary cop who’s been assigned to locate the boy after he escaped from custody after the police discovered him among a group of African migrants stashed away in a shipping container. Marcel’s own detective work helps him locate the boy’s grandfather, who informs him about the boy’s mother.

 

To the extent that “Le Havre” is concerned with plot, Marcel uses his underworld connections to find a willing transport for the boy provided he can raise the $3,000 euros. He convinces a local rock legend, Robert Piazza (aka “Little Bob”) to do a charity gig.

 

“La Havre” is beguiling, tough, free work. Kaurismäki is working in his preferred form, but the tone is elastic and deeply humane, evidenced by the sharp and emotionally buoyant secondary characters, like the magical local barmaid Yvette (Evelyne Didi) that deepen the movie’s grace and texture.

 

The movie sharply melds old and new, classic Hollywood with groundbreaking French works (the French New Wave icon Jean-Pierre Leaud turns up as a “denouncer,” or rat). The details develop out of the director’s meticulous, beautifully upholstered creation. Kaurismäki alternates between studio bound sets that deploy gorgeous, stylized lighting with open air and location work that creates a pungent and distinctive atmosphere.

 

The jokes have a great sting, sly, funny and alert, like a local businessman, who confronted by the cops and asked to explain his own motivation, simply replies, “I love my country.” The jokes are not just aural though visual, the most spectacular set piece an extended visual riff involving a seemingly shopworn gag, Marcel toting around a pineapple that in the elaborately choreographed camerawork achieves a moment worthy of Keaton.

 

Kaurismäki has always mined a very Scandinavian brand of humor that freely mixed laughter and self-recognition with a lacerating pain. The colors here are razor-sharp (the great cinematography is by Timo Salminen), but the mood is playful and optimistic, teasing out the possibility of hope and wonder.

 

“La Havre” celebrates the past, but just as important, its maker finds a glorious reason to be alive and kicking.

 

 

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