By Clarissa K. Wittenberg
February 3, 2012
I can’t tell if almost any film lover would enjoy Le Havre, a cool film written and directed by Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki, but it helps if you are a fan of French cinema. Certainly Kaurismaki loves France and seems to view it as a romantic metaphor for a complex, but more humane society. In 1992, he shot the precursor to Le Havre, La vie de bohème, and is planning future films. When you think about it, this is not so different from foreign directors who find the American saga a metaphor for freedom, or loneliness, or opportunity. However, if you love movies, don’t miss this film. It is a clear favorite for most serious film festivals and was submitted by Finland, despite the French setting, as its official entry for the Oscar’s Best Foreign Language Film. Described by its director as an “unrealistic film” it tells a contemporary story of the moral crisis of acceptance or rejection of desperate immigrants. Still, I bought the fantasy of otherwise ordinary people becoming saviors and had fun with the film. I appreciated too, the assertion that one doesn’t need to be neither young nor beautiful, to love and be loved.
The film features experienced character actors even including a cameo by Jean-Pierre Leaud, Truffaut’s alter ego in 400 Blows. There are other such film references including the shaggy dog named Laika, after the dog sent into space to die. Set in old sparsely furnished houses and tiny shops and bars, all with almost-high school drama style stage sets, e.g. le tabac, la epicerie, le bar. Costumes are vintage in appearance and the music sounds stolen from old French vinyl records. The film is set in a rough deteriorated, rusting, crowded section of Le Havre (Fr ”the haven, refuge”) although due to rebuilding after the almost total destruction during WWII, the city was almost entirely rebuilt with modernist architecture. The story of illegal African immigrants sets the stage for harsh realism, but when the rusting shipping container opens, the trespassers look clean, well dressed and healthy.
The opening scene has two shabby men waiting to shine the shoes of travelers emerging from the port. A disreputable looking man dressed like a rich gangster emerges with a briefcase handcuffed to his arm, has his shoes polished, and other men appear and he is shot dead. Nothing more comes of this murder except to further emphasize the rough setting for the film. The shoe shiners escape. A stereotypical long-suffering wife, Arletty, played by Kati Outinen, awaits the older leading man, Marcel Marx, played by Andre Wilms. Although he has already stopped for one aperitif, she sends him back to the bar for another as she prepares their meager meal, and as he leaves, she clearly feels ill and slumps over with her head on the table.
The next day, a watchman on patrol on the docks hears the cries of a baby coming from a huge container. Policemen arrive and arrest the illegal African migrants. At this point the stern Inspector Monet appears, played by Jean-Pierre Darroussin, to play out his surprising role in the drama. A young boy, Idrissa, played by Blondin Miguel, escapes arrest and Marcel Marx first leaves him food and then takes him to hid in his house. Idrissa is frightened, but remains calm and vigilant. It is not even as though he is brave, he seems to trust that he will be safe.
Marx, his beloved wife hospitalized with cancer, still takes their meager savings and travels to find Idrissa’s relatives, first in prison, and then in a primitive mountainside camp of refugees, where, incidentally, the food looks delicious. He learns the boy’s mother is in London. The rest of the story revolves around the coming together of this small community, including an amusing fundraising rock and roll concert, to aid the boy. There is a subplot of a medical miracle for Arletty to amplify the theme of the film.
The film is highly stylized and each turn of plot is foreshadowed in broad strokes, the only suspense is whether it will be a tragedy or a love story. At every turn, realism drops away and the story is painted by a masterful teller of tales. Even the moments of serious risk include cues of ultimate rescue.
LE HAVRE (93 minutes, at West End Cinema, Not Rated).
Clarissa K. Wittenberg was a founder and editor of the Washington Review, a journal of arts and literature that documented cultural life in Washington for over 28 years. She is currently Creative Director at the Washington Film Institute.