Article/ Le Havre: Shelter from the Storm

Finnish master Aki Kaurismäki returns with a comic delight

By Tiina Heinonen

“The jar returns to the well until it breaks”, recites an illegal immigrant detained in a refugee centre in Aki Kaurismäki’s remarkable Le Havre, a poetic yet political tale of survival, solidarity and resilience. The proverb is true of the writer-director, who remains loyal to his vivid, painterly and evocative signature style. In his cinema, colours are intensely rich, language is precise, laconic and sprinkled with dry humour, cultural references are frequent and society’s hard-working, well-meaning under­dogs are championed. Watching Le Havre puts you in the safe hands of a skilled artisan at the top of his game.

Finland’s leading, though still under­valued, auteur and maestro of sophisticated melodrama, Kaurismäki’s filmography ranges from the adaptations Crime and Punishment (1983) and Hamlet Goes Business (1987) to road movies about the Leningrad Cowboys – Finland’s answer to Spinal Tap. The Proletariat Trilogy (Shadows in Paradise [1986], Ariel [1988], The Match Factory Girl [1990]) and Loser Trilogy (Drifting Clouds [1996], The Man Without a Past [2002], Lights in the Dusk [2006]) fine-tuned his very specific, well-designed technique, depicting social turmoil in post-Cold War Finland. In them, Kaurismäki excels at ensuring that the unemployed, the homeless, the abandoned and the uninspired are noticed. Though melancholy in tone and anti-capitalist in its stance, the second trilogy in particular places emphasis on optimism, community and strength of character as means of overcoming temporary setbacks.

Since its premiere at Cannes, Le Havre has delighted audiences with its instant charm and oldschool values. It offers a chance to catch up with Marcel Marx (André Wilms), who first appeared in 1991’s The Bohemian Life. Formerly a Parisian poet and now a shoeshiner, Marcel leads an honest if humble life with his wife Arletty (a singular performance by Kati Outinen, Kaurismäki’s leading lady since Shadows in Paradise) in the French fishing port of Le Havre. They live frugally yet happily within a tight-knit working-class neighbourhood. But then Arletty succumbs to a serious illness, forcing Marcel to take charge. Unable to cure his beloved wife, he becomes guardian to Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), a young African immigrant he encounters at the harbour. The boy wants to start a new life in London, but first he has to evade the immigration authorities.

Le Havre re-teams Wilms and Outinen following 1999’s bleaker Juha, a silent black and white film, in which repressed housewife Marja is whisked from countryside chores to the glamour of the big city by Wilms’ rakish charmer. In Le Havre, their relationship is made for even the most banal of dates: when visiting his wife in the hospital, Marcel brings her flowers and chocolates, whilst Arletty dolls up to mask her ailing health. Wilms, Outinen and Miguel’s subtle performances are complemented by those of Elina Salo (another Kaurismäki veteran, though best known in Finland as the voice of Little My in the Moomins), Jean-Pierre Darroussin (A Very Long Engagement [2004]) and icon of the French New Wave, Jean-Pierre Léaud.

Kaurismäki’s cinema is both timeless and topical. He achieves the former by distancing the cinematic world from reality, evoking nostalgia and even drawing on fairytales: with heroes and villains, predictable but satisfying story arcs, an ignorance of logic and a sweet trust in people’s innate goodness. Like fairytales, Kaurismäki’s films refuse to be locked down in a specific time or location; instead, they exist in a dreamscape where cars are classic, men are gentle and women even more so, bars have jukeboxes, walls are robin egg blue, doors don’t need locking and groceries are taken home in a wooden box. The director’s self-admittedly romantic view is shared by the characters: dignity is their most valued currency.

By emphasising life’s core values, Kaurismäki is perhaps at his most political – if simple concepts such as community, trust, freedom and compassion seem old-fashioned through our contemporary eyes, he’ll happily remind us of what we are missing. In a way, Le Havre’s idealised micro-society holds a mirror up to ours. Politics is present, but obliquely so, evidenced by the characters’ motivations, the news report on TV about the breaking up of an immigration camp and the fact that nobody will have their shoes shined by Idrissa.

In Kaurismäki’s minimalist, heartfelt narrative, the first of The Harbour Town Trilogy, embellishments are few and the story’s moral message constantly shines through. Everything that happens has to happen and everything that is shown is shown for a reason. Nothing is unnecessary or accidental; there is a faultless harmony in the storytelling. Like the café-bars and the shadowed streets of ‘Akiland’, Kaurismäki’s films are affable and guileless in their portrayal of the overlooked ‘small people’ on the fringes of society. His is modestly elegant filmmaking. And never more so than in Le Havre.

With thanks to Curzon Cinemas

Le Havre screens at Cornerhouse from Fri 6 April