How to deal with the pains of modern western world? How to express the helplessness and anger of a modern Westerner towards a the misery of abused immigrants, who are brought like a beasts by traffickers, who are trapped in detention camps in Europe and who have in fact fewer life chances than before? Is there any other way than a simple narrative, the documentary approach or heartbreaking contemporary multicultural melodrama?
In Le Havre, Aki Kaurismäki’s answer is not a general example to follow, because it grows from his original style and individuality. He treats a hot modern issue as an ode to classical cinema from the thirties to seventies, cinema from the times when moral values were not in doubt, when the line between good and bad was relatively clear.
Of course, this is ironic. But this is an ironic masterpiece and real delicacy for mature art house audiences. It’s brave, sweet and funny — and it’s something very new in Aki Kaurismäki’s filmography. Only his Clouds Are Over (Kauas pilvet Karkaavat, 1996) deals with a contemporary social subject — unemployment — but its minimalistic style recalls social propaganda rather than art.
Here is the story of Le Havre:
Marcel Marx, a former author and a well-known Bohemian, has retreated into voluntary exile in the port city of Le Havre, where he feels he has reached a closer rapport with the people serving them in the honourable, but not too profitable, occupation of a shoe-shiner. He has buried his dreams of a literary breakthrough and lives happily within the triangle of his favourite bar, his work, and his wife Arletty, when fate suddenly throws in his path an underage immigrant refugee from Africa. The child, the dying loving wife, working class people, one provincial rock star… Love and solidarity save and solve everything. “Si tous les gars du monde…”.
In Le Havre, Kaurismäki cites directly or indirectly Carné and Prévert, Melville, René Clair, French police thrillers with Gabin and others, to transform his subject into a sort of fairytale. All possible narrative and dramatic clichés and references are here to create a structure that is in the same time perfectly predictable and totally surprising. This is the typical Kaurismäki poetic, retro world, with no technology (not surprisingly, only denouncerJean Pierre Léaud owns the mobile phone), with silent but deep human relationships and compassion. The slow rhythm of narration recalls early Carné, the poor but dignified neighborhood and the noble, poetic dialogue recalls Prévert. Absurd unexpected jokes come from the clash between the modern illegal immigrant story and old-fashioned style. Only the quasi-documentary scenes from refugee camps bring us to modernity. There’s an irresistible scene in which Marcel Marx visits the director of the camp and declares himself to be the albino brother of a little African refugee.
It s easy to say that Kaurismäki is does the same thing all the time… Yes, in some ways it is a typical Kaurismäki. But Le Havre is still different. It creates a new cinema world that brings together nostalgia, feelings of guilt and the message that we may not be able to blend a new reality with old clichés. Not in life. But in the film, we can. It’s funny and moving. It is an admirable piece of cinema.
© FIPRESCI 2011