CIFF 2011: Le Havre (2011)

Producer/Director/Screenwriter: Aki Kaurismäki

2011 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

According to Lana Wilson in her excellent précis of the cinema of Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki in Senses of Cinema, “The protagonist of a Kaurismäki film is almost always the same character: a lonely, working-class underdog of few words in search of love and a steady job.” While Kaurismäki is still interested in such characters, with Le Havre, the first in a projected three-film series on port cities and Finland’s entry in this year’s Oscar’s race, he is definitely moving his concerns in a different direction.

Although much of its subject matter—smuggling illegal immigrants, late-stage cancer, police surveillance—is pretty serious, Le Havre, named for the French city in which it is set, is actually one seriously feel-good film. Kaurismäki has decided to give his sad-sack protagonist, an unambitious shoeshine named Marcel Marx (André Wilms), a break. Although he thieves food from Claire the baker (Elina Salo) and the greengrocer (François Monnié) because he can’t pay for it, the storekeepers are fairly laissez-faire about it, and Marcel has a wonderful wife, Arletty (Kaurismäki regular Kati Outinen), who cares for his every need and knows how to save the money that runs like quicksilver through Marcel’s fingers. As a result, Marcel has a nice roof over his head, as does his dog Laïka, and always a few Euros generously proferred by Arletty to spend at the local tavern before dinner is served.

Dark clouds are coming Marcel’s way, however. Arletty has a sudden pain in her stomach; the doctor (Pierre Étaix) at the hospital tells her she’s a goner. Characteristically, Arletty is more worried about what will become of Marcel. She asks the doctor whether there is any hope, to which he replies that miracles do happen. “Not in my neighborhood,” is Arletty’s rueful reply. Marcel is told nothing about the seriousness of her condition, only that she will be in the hospital for a while for treatments and to stay away. The neighborhood people, knowing more about Arletty’s condition than Marcel does, sympathize with him. Claire comes by with home-cooked meals, and the barkeep Yvette (Evelyne Didi) gives him drinks on the house.

Soon, Marcel sees an African boy (Blondin Miguel) hiding in the water under a pier. The boy, Idrissa, is the only one of a group of refugees hiding in a container bound for England to escape police capture, and his case has been headline news in Le Havre ever since. Marcel buys a sandwich and bottled water and leaves them on the wooden steps of the pier for the fugitive. Soon he finds the boy hiding in Laïka’s doghouse. Marcel tries to find Idrissa’s parents and finds he can again rely on the kindness of his neighbors to help him hide the boy. He locates and visits Idrissa’s grandfather, locked up in deportation center, and learns that Idrissa’s father has been killed and his mother is established in London. Marcel determines to get Idrissa to his mother, but he will have to pay a hefty fee to the smuggler and evade the police, led by Inspector Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), who has been tipped by a nosy neighbor (Jean-Pierre Léaud) where Idrissa is hiding.

I am going to quote from a fine review of an Indian film, Aadaminte Makan Abu, because it says beautifully much of what I want to say about Le Havre:

The protagonist of Aadaminte Makan Abu (Abu, the son of Adam) is, likewise, not a great soul – he does not go around committing noble deeds or inspiring people – but he’s a good soul, and that is quite enough: doors open welcomingly to him, and he never runs into a wall. Even his enemy admires him. What sort of a script is this, one may ask, that has no real conflict or resolution? It is one that demonstrates that the good are blessed with goodness.

Marcel is like this protagonist. In these “kill the poor and infirm” times, Marcel would be the butt of hostility, and the illegal immigrant he helps would be tossed to the wolves. Indeed, when Idrissa runs from the container, one of the policemen raises his rifle; he is quickly warned off this unnecessary act by a fellow officer. But Inspector Monet doesn’t care about Marcel or Idrissa facing “justice”; he wants to pursue real criminals, not people who are just trying to get by, and only intensifies his search for Idrissa under orders from the chief of police. Even then, he listens to his conscience and tells a life-giving lie.

The businesspeople in Marcel’s neighborhood don’t want a pound of Marcel’s flesh for every loaf of bread he’s stolen or cans of beans he didn’t pay for. When it comes down to it, they care more about Marcel and his cause than money—they haven’t forgotten how to be human. In contrast, Jean-Pierre Léaud looks and acts like a caricature, the real embodiment of a being who has lost his humanity and has started to look like something other than human.

In a terrific set piece, Marcel decides to hold a fundraising concert to raise the money he needs to pay the English smuggler (the Le Havre boatman only wants the price of gas). He persuades real-life singing star Little Bob (a cross between Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, and Billy Barty) to perform by getting Mimie (Myriam ‘Mimie’ Piazza), Little Bob’s girlfriend and muse, to make up a quarrel they had. The concert footage is very entertaining, and sent me and the hubby off to look up Little Bob’s work.

While the actors mainly maintain the sort of deadpan look and clipped line delivery characteristic of Kaurismäki’s work, the French setting seems to have warmed everyone up. The French love of love is apparent throughout the film, Blondin Miguel offers a sly performance of careless youth and a pathetic deadpan that softens all hearts toward him. He visits Arletty in the hospital and tells her she must get well because Marcel can’t manage without her. He has come to care about Marcel’s fate every bit as much as Marcel cares about his.

I don’t know if films like Le Havre are wishful thinking or a plea from filmmakers like Kaurismäki for all of us to remember our soft and generous side. Whatever the reason, a humorous but unsentimental look at goodness is something we all need more of.

Le Havre will screen Saturday, October 8, 5:30 p.m., and Sunday, October 9, 3:30 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous coverage

King of Devil’s Island: Naturalistic and suspenseful look at life in an island detention center for boys and their rebellion against their harsh treatment. (Norway/France)

Cinema Komunisto: This entertaining and eye-opening documentary provides a loving look at the little-known national cinema of Yugoslavia and the film fanatic who made it happen: Marshall Josif Broz Tito, Yugoslavia’s president for life. (Serbia)

Inshallah, Football: One young man’s struggle to get a passport to play soccer in Brazil is the lens through which this documentary examines the Indian oppression of Muslims in the occupied region of Kashmir. (India)

George the Hedgehog: Irreverent and adult, this comic-book-based animated film pits George, a pleasure-loving hedgehog, against his clone, a stupid, vulgar internet superstar. (Poland)

The Kid with a Bike: What makes some people give unselfishly of themselves is the question examined in this intense tale by the Dardenne brothers of a boy abandoned by his father and the single woman who takes him in. (Belgium)

Without: A suspenseful story of guilt and loss slowly unfurls as a young woman acts as a temporary caregiver to a helpless elderly man in an isolated island home. (USA)

Madame X: A riotous satire on spy/superhero films that has a drag queen hairdresser transform into a crusader for freedom and equality against the forces of repressive morality. (Indonesia)

Southwest: A haunting, beautifully photographed journey of discovery, as a young woman who dies in childbirth gets a second chance to live to old age, but only one day in which to live it. (Brazil)

On the Bridge: Moving documentary about the torments of posttraumatic stress disorder suffered by Iraq veterans and the failure of the VA medical establishment to help them. (France/USA)

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    5th/10/2011 to 9:17 pm

    “The protagonist of a Kaurismäki film is almost always the same character: a lonely, working-class underdog of few words in search of love and a steady job.”

    Well, that is certainly a dead-on contention, and is applicable to most of his work including his best film to date THE MATCH FACTORY GIRL (Tulitikkutehtaan tyttö; 1990) But this new direction and this new story set in France explores characters and aspects of behavior not previously examined. I’ve heard much about this film and look forward to it.

    Excellent, engaging piece here.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    5th/10/2011 to 9:38 pm

    Thanks, Sam. This one will put a smile on your face to last the whole week. I’d love to hear you rhapsodize about it, which I’m sure you will.

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