23 December 2011

Kaurismäki’s ‘Le Havre’

André Vilms and Blondin Miguel

Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre is such a gift-box of delights that I’m almost hesitant to tell you anything about it, but for fear that you’ll miss it altogether. (The movie continues to run at New York’s AFI Center through 3 January.) The Finnish film director, working for the first time in France, treats a subject that is torn from the headlines, politically sensitive, and not unrelated to his own status: illegal immigration, the “sans papiers” and “clandestins” who periodically dominate French discourse, until they’re forgotten yet again.

Torn from the headlines: Blondin Miguel as Idrissa

Kaurismäki focuses on a little boy from Gabon (Blondin Miguel) who’s stranded in the eponymous city, tracked down by a wily detective (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) and reliant on the goodwill of a working-class French neighborhood. If you need any confirmation that Kaurismäki, a foreigner himself, is welcome in the notoriously insular community of French cinema, you get it soon enough, when no less a figure than Jean-Pierre Léaud shows up. Léaud was Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel, of course, an icon of the seventh art, but he doesn’t make many movies anymore. His participation, even in an unsympathetic role (arguably the only one in the picture), lends Kaurismäki’s freshman effort the greatest seal of approval you could want.

Your own approval is virtually guaranteed, from the loopy humor to the eccentric characters and a story that, despite its outward reserve, is frankly heartwarming. It’s a mystery how anybody can take illegal immigration and turn it into the feel-good picture of the year, without a second’s worth of cloying or grandstanding — but that’s just what Aki Kaurismäki has done.

“Miracles do happen”: Vilms and Outinen

The great wonder of Le Havre is not that Kaurismäki finds so much visual beauty in run-down neighborhoods, ports, and bars, in France as in Finland, but how well his patented style — so much of which seems to be based on a particularly Finnish repertoire of quirks and deadpan — works in a French context, with mostly French actors. The acting in a Kaurismäki movie is deliberate, about half a beat off the rhythms of those of any French movie, lending each word and gesture a certain artificiality, yes, but guaranteeing that you’ll pay attention. And here, as in The Man without a Past, Kaurismäki shows us a marginalized community that looks after its own: very rarely, and perhaps only in Robert Guédiguian’s Marius et Jeannette (from 1997, it also co-starred Darroussin), have I seen the like in contemporary French cinema, a sort of updated, European, unabashedly Socialist Frank Capra sensibility by which, when given the chance, people turn out better at heart than you first expect them to be.

Volcanic activity: Vilms and Outinen

Kaurismäki has brought along his favorite actress, Kati Outinen, whose long, weak-chinned, dispassionate face and comparably flat line readings uplift his films so cunningly. At first she doesn’t seem to be acting at all, much less feeling anything, but as you watch, you sense a vibrant, passionate, beautiful woman within: it’s underplaying as volcanic activity on a microscopic level. Here she’s given the name Arletty, a tribute to the great actress of the Golden Age of French cinema and another assertion of Kaurismäki’s fitness to work here.*

Protagonist meets antagonist: Vilms and Darroussin. The detective is costumed like a character from a graphic novel, but he’s decidedly three-dimensional.

Arletty’s husband, Marcel, is our protagonist: a failed writer turned itinerant bootblack, he finds and shelters young Idrissa and tries to help him on his way to London, where the boy’s mother is waiting. (Typically for this film’s melting-pot conception of immigration, she works in a Chinese laundry.) He’s played by André Vilms with the face and florid voice of a matinée idol gone to seed, more theatrical than the other actors in the film and yet not discordantly so: it’s a lovely performance, beautifully matched by Miguel’s sangfroid.

Of course, you can’t prevail on your own — or at least, you can’t in a Kaurismäki movie. Marcel enlists the aid of his neighbors, including the soft-hearted boulangère Yvette (Evelyne Didi); the tougher, wiser Claire (Elina Salo), who runs the local bar; a fellow bootblack who, it turns out, is also an illegal immigrant (Quoc Dung Nguyen); and an Arab grocer (François Monnie). Their sense of community solidarity is exemplary, and intended to be, I suspect, in a country where politicians from Marine LePen to Nicolas Sarkozy continually seek to exploit xenophobia for their own purposes. But even though Marcel’s last name is Marx, Kaurismäki never mentions politics at all.

He sent her husband up the river, but what’s a little thing like that between friends? Darroussin and Salo.

Similarly, although Darroussin devotes much, if not quite all, of his career to projects that promote his left-wing political views, very seldom do I feel he’s hitting me over the head with agitprop. One reason is that he so often conveys the quick play of his critical intelligence, and the complexity of any situation. As the black-hatted police detective, he reminds us that an antagonist isn’t necessarily a villain, and he’s having a great time here — as is Léaud, though to tell you much more about him would risk spoiling the picture for you.

And that is the last thing I want to do. If you’re in New York, hurry to the IFC Center; if you’re not, pounce on this movie the minute it comes near. By remaining true to himself, Kaurismäki has made something fresh and exciting and somehow thoroughly French. It’s a movie to savor and to prize.

Miguel, with Laika — who also gets star billing in the picture.
That should tell you something about Kaurismäki’s sensibility.

*Among Arletty’s many great films is Marcel Carné’s Hôtel du Nord (1938), another study of a down-and-out French neighborhood and the colorful characters who live there.

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