Criterion Corner Review: 'Le Havre' Is a Modern Fairy Tale for All Ages

Criterion Corner Review: 'Le Havre' Is a Modern Fairy Tale for All Ages

Aug 02, 2012

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#619: Le Havre (dir. Aki Kaurismäki) 2011 

THE FILM: Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki has shot 18 features on Ingmar Bergman’s old camera, but don’t tell him that. As far as Kaurismäki is concerned, it’s his camera, Bergman just used it first. The distinction naturally boils down to semantics, and it’s almost impossible to read  Kaurismäki’s soundbites without feeling a wry smile creep across the words, but this little bit of film lore is emblematic of the extent to which his cinema reins in and repurposes all that it loves, the droll director churning those influences through his stoic machinations until they’re uniquely his own, but somehow still connected to the most perfectly familiar things.

Le Havre reimagines the pale and giddily gray world of Jean-Pierre Melville’s criminal sagas as an industrial fairy tale lost in time; the rustic French port city of Le Havre rooting this story in the past, while its political undercurrents pulse with the present. It’s an uneasy balance, and -- like so many of Kaurismäki’s films -- Le Havre unspools in a thick but curiously fuzzy temporal fog, unstuck in time like an island from a J.J. Abrams sci-fi series (no, not Alcatraz, the other one). The bar to which the film’s characters most frequently retreat is called La Moderne, typical of Kaurismäki’s devastating gift for tender ironies (“stockades humor,” if you will). Le Havre can even feel adrift within its own plot, lurching forward and drifting sideways (a trendy charity rock concert featuring Little Bob!) in a way that risks enervating viewers who aren’t simply delighted to be there, but -- for the rest of us -- the gentle spontaneity and earned sentiment at the heart of this fable is ultimately irresistible.  

We open in the midst of something shady. Men in fedoras and trench coats loiter around a quiet train station, trading stoic looks that are loaded with cool deceit -- one of the men is a dead ringer for Alain Delon, another is getting his shoes shined. The scene doesn’t build for long, coming to a sudden end with a flurry of offscreen gunshots, the grisly end to one story, and the cute beginning to another. The camera, regardless as to whom it belongs, stays trained on the shoeshiner (André Wilms) throughout the unseen violence -- he watches it unfold like he’s squinting at an old movie he’s seen a thousand times, or perhaps the deadpan stare is his reaction to a glimmer from a past he’s long since outgrown. His name is Marcel Marx (as in “Karl”), and he’s heading home to Le Havre on the afternoon train. He’s a long and reasonably slender man, with sinking circles beneath his eyes and a sweep of gray hair matted down from the top of his head.  Marcel’s face is so obviously loaded with history and heartbreak that it has withered into a winsomely defeated tabula rasa -- he’s just another old man living in the port of shadows, a modern survivor who nips some bread on the way home to his wife.

Kaurismäki describes Le Havre as “A forgotten town, a place barely known by the French themselves.” He continues, “You can’t just accidentally drive past it; you have to make up your mind to go there.” That Le Havre opens in the style of a Melvile film suggests the city’s shapeless nature -- it’s not a generic place, but rather one that remains defiantly accommodating, a willing venue for any sort of story regardless as to what’s happening in the outside world. Such a sense of infinite possibilities is an inherently optimistic tact, a borderless worldview reflected by Kaurismäki’s decision to set this lovely parable in a port town, and furthered by his precise but spontaneous compositions (he loathes storyboards, conceiving of a shot only after the previous one is in the can). 

Le Havre, as we learn from Marcel Marx’s friends and neighbors, is a bastard community, comprised of human odds and ends that have made their home on the fringes of society. Immigrants, bartenders, aging rock stars... they are decent people who live uncomplicated lives, or perhaps they are decent people because they live uncomplicated lives. When we meet Marcel’s sweet wife, Arletty, she’s preparing dinner -- a voice on the radio says “You’re listening to Reality Radio: Difficult Choices. Today’s subject: Dishwashers.” In fact, Le Havre practically feels like a post-millennial Mayfield until Kaurismäki drops a double whammy on our hapless hero: Arletty is suddenly stricken with terminal cancer, and a little boy -- an illegal African refugee named Idrissa -- escapes a stranded shipping container en route to London and falls under Marcel’s care. A relentless customs agent begins to search for Idrissa, and it’s up to Marcel and his friends to help the child escape the long arm of the law and continue along his journey. Le Havre is indeed a melting pot, and it’s still cooking. 

Marcel and Arletty share a great and lived-in love, but she knows that he is a child at heart, stretched out and dulled. Idrissa exposes that Marcel is fundamentally good, but perhaps in need of a little perspective, a failed writer who needs some help to appreciate all of the miracles in his life, large and small. Oof... okay, that sounded bad. That sounded Lasse Hallström bad, but Kaurismäki tells this potentially nauseating story with such craft and small-scale sincerity that the film feels true, even when it doesn’t feel especially real.

Of course, reality isn’t necessarily what Kaurismäki is after. The threats in Le Havre are all grimly true to life -- the politics, the arbitrary borders and the lives they disrupt, the human trafficking, the cancer. The manner by which Kaurismäki captures them, on the other hand, is far more explicitly expressive. Timo Salminen’s hard theatrical lighting builds a rich world of shadows and sharp lines, speaking the inner lives of the film’s characters when they refuse to speak for themselves, and pointedly confusing where one person ends and another begins. Everyone is bigger than they appear, if not that much bigger. Kaurismäki also delights in bending the genius of his many influences away from their original heartbreak, fluffing one of Ozu’s pillow shots with a little bit of hope, or infusing one of Bresson’s flat gestures with a hint of goodwill. Le Havre is designed to use the stories of the past as a means of dislocation -- Marcel and his friends may have made Le Havre their home, but Kaurismäki’s stylistic hodgepodge asserts that they found their way to this place, that it wasn’t built for them. 

At times, it feels as if the film itself wasn’t built for them, either. Arletty’s prolonged absence from the story threatens to tear at the emotional through-line that maintains our interest in her husband’s adventure, but Kati Outinen’s bracingly direct performance allows Arletty’s big moments to hit hard and readily influence the greater narrative. Arletty being taken away from the home she shares with Marcel and being admitted to a local hospital mirrors the jarring suddenness with which immigration crackdowns can claim and return people from the lives they’ve made for themselves, unless -- as is the case with Marcel’s friend, Chang -- they can figure out how to become new people, altogether. In another light, the unyielding permanence of death’s cold embrace forces the relative malleability of all other circumstances into perspective, Marcel’s helplessness to save his wife perhaps compelling him to intervene on Idrissa’s behalf, if only because he can.  

Kaurismäki typically shoots in his native Finland, but despite the change of scenery (this is his second film to roll in France), fans of his work will immediately recognize the gentle pace, wry humor and poker-faced delivery that is so emblematic of his films (there are even a few familiar faces). Those new to this especially droll auteur may struggle with all of the deceptively dead air, but Le Havre is perhaps Kaurismäki’s most accessible film, its immediately empathetic characters and sweet disposition inviting to anyone hoping to see the world in a warmer light. Like so many of Kaurismäki’s most beloved stuff, Le Havre is tremendously sophisticated, yet sublimely uncomplicated -- this is a film about kindness, and kindness is about as simple as life gets.

THE TRANSFER: Kaurismäki will likely be shooting on film for as long as Bergman’s old camera still works, but Le Havre doesn’t look old or dull in the slightest. On the contrary, Criterion’s stunning transfer focuses attention on the picture’s rich textures and precise lighting -- the Blu-ray image is crisp as can be, with thick shadows and strong colors that don’t wash into each other. Perfection.

THE EXTRAS: Criterion releases of recent films naturally tend to be a bit lighter on the extras than new editions of established classics, and Le Havre is no exception. The disc isn’t bare-bones, but there’s not much meat here, as most of the supplements are interviews of one kind or another. The big-ticket draw is all 46 minutes of the film’s Cannes press coverage, in which Kaurismäki makes his only appearance on the disc. The gang is fun to see together, but can’t overcome the fact that press conferences are still a total bore if Lars von Trier isn’t sympathizing with Hitler. The disc also includes a 49-minute feature on Kari Outinen, in which the actress appears on a Finnish Inside the Actors’ Studio-type show. It won’t blow your hair back, but it provides some nice perspective on one of the most criminally underappreciated actresses of new-world cinema. The Andre Wilms interview, recorded exclusively for this release, is a fair bit shorter, but similarly worth watching. The disc is rounded out by nine minutes of Little Bob concert footage, in which the wrinkled rocker suits up and blasts out two songs. Only hardcore Little Bob fans need apply.

THE BEST BIT: I don’t mean this as an insult to the supplements that are actually on the disc, but the most rewarding bonus included with this release might have to be the Kaurismäki interview that can be read in the package’s paper booklet. Peter von Bagh’s chat with the director finds Kaurismäki in fine and unusually candid form, extensively discussing his process, his worldview, and his intentions for the film. It’s a great read, and ends with glorious confirmation that Le Havre is the first film of a globe-hopping trilogy.

THE ARTWORK: Manuele Fior’s gorgeous paintings make Le Havre one of the most beautiful Criterion releases of the year, from the harsh geometry of the cover image to the soft portraits that illustrate the booklet tucked inside. It’s tonally spot-on, warm and adorable. Laika! Visit the Criterion Corner blog for a peek inside the box.

THE ARBITRARY VERDICT: 85 / 100.

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