Le Havre (A)
France/Finland: Aki Kaurismaki, 2011, Criterion Collection
The wondrously ragtag people of Le Havre -- Aki Kaurismaki's bluesy neo-realist fairytale of a film about class solidarity, kindness and international brotherhood, are a community of grand allusions, walking. And the film, both melancholy and sweet, is their dreamy, broken boulevard of references.
It's a movie about kindness, shot like a film noir, or a movie about cruelty, and set in the poor quarters of Le Havre, the French port city. The plot: Ex-artist and workingman Marcel, who has to take his mortally ill wife to the hospital, later discovers a young refugee from Gabon hiding in his shack. He decides to help the boy elude the police and flee to his relatives in England -- though Marcel has little money and few resources. His community, most of whom admired and loved his wife, help him, despite one rat in their midst, and he also gets help from unexpected quarters. The style is pure Kaurismaki and the ending is reminiscent of both De Sica and Capra.
Now, the allusions. The hero, a threadbare but suave ex-Parisian Bohemian/writer turned shoeshine man, played by Andre Wilms, is named "Marcel Marx," a reference to Karl Marx (and maybe to Groucho, Chico and Harpo), and also to Marcel Carne, the director of the great World War II-era French film classic Children of Paradise. (It's also an allusion to the character of the same name that Wilms played in Kaurismaki's 1990 Paris-set La Vie de Boheme.) Marcel's hard-working self-sacrificing wife (played by Kaurismaki's longtime actress Kati Outinen) is named Arletty, who was the tough cookie and street beauty Garance of Children of Paradise, and who played similar characters in several other Carne-Jacques Prevert classics, including Andre Bazin's favorite Le Jour Se Leve.
Idrissa, the illegal fugitive immigrant boy from Gabon (played by Blondin Miguel), who arrives in Le Havre, smuggled in a cargo box, and whom Marcel tries to rescue from the authorities after Arletty is hospitalized, may get his name from Idrissa Ouedraogo (Anger of the Gods), the highly regarded African filmmaker from Burkina Fasso, who is a contemporary of Kaurismaki's and shares some of his film festival cache. The dour and perceptive Detective Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) -- who is assigned to track down the boy, but is reluctant to mess with a "crime" not really, in his view, criminal is certainly inspired by the savvy flics of Jean-Pierre Melville's film noirs, like Perier in Le Samourai and Bourvil in Le Cercle Rouge. Monet shares with them the usual Melville cop's deadpan ingenuity, surprising moral sense and connections to the "other side."
More. The nameless spy and snitch played by Jean-Pierre Leaud in Le Havre undoubtedly refers to the spies and snitches of Henri-Georges Clouzot's 1943 poison-pen thriller Le Corbeau, also a product of the French cinema's Vichy years. Rocker Little Bob (Roberto Piazza), the key to the film's highly improbable but gratifying climax, connects us to a whole Kaurismaki-treasured vinyl world of '50s rock and rockabilly. Laika, who is Marcel and Arletty's very sympathetic pet canine, with her reassuring bark, takes her name from the Soviet space program's famed cosmonaut dog.
Le Havre, a great favorite at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, has a dimension of reality but it also exists in its own private world of cinephilia and Kaurismakiana. It's simply not intended as a believably realistic film -- and even its seeming realism (the straight-on slow camera style, the drab locations, the terse dialogue), is, in its way, yet another filmic allusion, this time to Italian neo-realism or to Robert Bresson.
Kaurismaki's movie instead, is a mix of a semi-naturalistic lower depths milieu and background (the exteriors were shot on location), with an ensemble of Kaurismaki people walking real Le Havre streets in a cinematic paradise of references and favorites. No wonder so many film critics and cinephiles loved it so much. As we watch Le Havre, we can spot the allusions and revisit all these worlds with him. His love of cinema and his desire to possess and revisit it mirrors our own.
And we can also appreciate the humanity of Le Havre, seeping up through the cinematic setting. The movie is about generosity of spirit, the ties of human warmth that bind us together, or should but often don't. Ironically, the kindness emanates from a man who initially seems somewhat self-absorbed and even selfish. Marcel, who hits the bar while his wife prepares supper, and doesn't push her to eat with him (when we know she's in pain), and seems not to notice that his precious, self-sacrificing wife is sick, even mortally ill. Then, as if in mortified compensation, he keeps visiting her in her hospital bed (while she lies to him about the gravity of her illness), bringing her flowers, until she tells him to stay away until she's better. (We realize she probably never will be.)
He then devotes himself to a total stranger, Idrissa, risking jail or confiscation for himself and everyone who aids them. That is the mystery of the film: Does Marcel become a Good Samaritan out of guilt, or restlessness, or out of shock at the revelation of his own inattention and selfishness. Or does he simply wish to become a good person?
Anyway, the ensemble plays quietly and beautifully. Wilms and Outinen move us. Kaurismaki guides us poignantly to the movies and memories he loves. The background is both grim and wistful. Laika barks. Little Bob rocks. Le Havre is a bluish port of shadows. The light is a benediction. And there is room for kindness -- in our films, as well as in our lives. In French and English, with English subtitles. (Extras: Interview with Andre Wilms; footage from the 2011 Cannes Film Festival including a press conference and a French TV interview with the cast and crew; TV interview with Kati Outinen; concert footage with Little Bob; booklet with essay by Michel Sicinski and a Peter von Bagh interview with Kaurismaki.)