The cinematic world of Aki Kaurismäki is as singular as those of Federico Fellini or Yasujirō Ozu. Those new to the Finnish filmmaker may need to tune to his rock & roll pop art wavelength and staccato pacing, but once you do you’ll find an irresistible mix of ironic humour and life affirming humanity.
In the unglamorous port town of the title, middle-aged shoe-shiner Marcel Marx (André Wilms, one of Kaurismäki’s regular pokerfaced players) plies his trade. Times are clearly tough in the shoeshine racket. His local baker bemoans Marcel’s unpaid bills and the greengrocer across the street slams down his shutters whenever our hangdog protagonist approaches for fear of him leaching more credit; lunch is a measly one egg omelette and small vin rouge (in France, and in Kaurismäki’s universe, alcohol is no luxury item). Even under this fiscal strain, Marcel’s reaction to a client getting mowed down in a shower of gunfire in the opening scene – “luckily he had time to pay!” – seems rather callus.
It’s a surprise, then, when Marcel displays a streak of altruism and helps Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), a young Senegalese boy he finds wading in the drink. “Is this London?” the wide-eyed lad asks. “You want there. The other side,” says Marcel, pointing rather unhelpfully at the English Channel. Dumped in Le Havre in a shipping container and now on the lam from immigration control, the shoeshine takes Idrissa under his wing while his wife is in hospital (unbeknown to Marcel, she’s terminally ill); a makeshift domestic unit blossoms.
This Chaplinesque plot – penniless sad sack forms bond with helpless innocent – plays out, as those familiar with Kaurismäki’s M.O. will know, in pure Buster Keaton deadpan. Money to buy Idrissa’s safe passage to Blighty is raised through an impromptu charity concert (“they’re very trendy” reckons the landlady at Marcel’s favourite drinking hole). Headline spot goes to Little Bob – a kind of sun-dried, Gallic Elvis – who proves an unlikely hot ticket.
Any thinness of Le Havre’s story is more than compensated for by the irresistible richness of its image. Normandy’s industrial coastline is captured with the same sensitivity that Kaurismäki and cinematographer Timo Salminen regularly reserve for their home country’s own blasted landscape. Interiors, meanwhile, are rendered in a vivid palette of cobalt blues, banana yellows and sea greens. The only contemporary filmmaker to match Kaurismäki’s fastidious framing and precise design is Wes Anderson, the urbane flip-side to the Finn’s poetic working class milieu.
Like Anderson’s films, Le Havre’s period setting is hazy. Ostensibly it’s present day, but the ubiquity of vinyl records, rotary dial telephones and a general community spirit suggests a place out of time; a downbeat rock & roll-era Avalon. The politics of immigration detention centres and financial hardship, however, could not be more contemporary. It may appear soufflé light but there’s real steel to Kaurismäki’s cinema.
Le Havre is released 6th April 2012.
Text: Jamie Dunn