Deadpan Gateway: Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre (2011) – Blu-ray review
Light, slight but deceptively rich, this is the ideal port in which to weigh anchor aboard Aki Kaurismäki’s deadpan world.
(Aki Kaurismäki, 2011)
Harbours are a gateway, not only geographically but psychologically. That’s worth bearing in mind watching Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre. It’s a French film by a Finnish director. It’s a drama – about a borderline-legal shoe-shiner who hides an African refugee from the authorities – flecked with deadpan comedy. And it’s a film that was filmed in a real place (the title is a Normandy town) that is transformed into a hyperreal vista of craggy faces, steel-sharp colours and off-kilter compositions.
Kaurismäki is, as you might have gathered even if you’ve never seen one of his films, something of an acquired taste – but Le Havre is, aptly, the ideal gateway to his strange world. The opening scene alone is a marvel in offsetting expectation with surreal, genuinely unexpected flourishes. The shoe-shine guy, Marcel Marx, and his assistant, Chang, watch as their latest customer, under surveillance from shifty-looking men, walks away into a hail of bullets. Except the audience only hears the gunfire: the camera stays on the spectators, as Chang murmurs dispassionately, “Poor devil.” Consider your expectations well and truly confounded.
The rest of the film almost passes muster as a thriller, but it’s also a bittersweet character study as Marcel, helplessly with worry as his cancer-stricken wife lies in hospital, channels his innate optimism into helping Idrissa, the boy. And yet again, it’s a form of magic realism as, without Marcel courting help in any way, his friends and neighbours rally to keep Idrissa safe. And finally, it’s very funny, as Kaurismäki catches all of this behaviour askance, daring us to break through the Brechtian surface to enjoy the cuddlesome delight of the film underneath. The refusal to acknowledge genre limitations imbues a slight narrative with real heart and meaning, especially in the bravura cut from the film’s most emotionally-charged scene to an extended music promo of ageing rockabilly singer Little Bob: a characteristic move for the music-obsessed director.
And yet, the variation has a thematic point. Kaurismäki’s absurdist vision of borders and illegal immigration becomes clear when Marcel discovers Chang, a man he’s known for years, isn’t the Chinaman he believed his friend to be but a Vietnamese refugee living under an assumed name. It’s a brilliant joke, reconfiguring ignorance as colour-blindness – what do the details of identification matter when true character is built on trust and kindness and mutual respect?
And what a name Marcel Marx is for the hero of this story – because this is politics played as mime, Kaurismäki encouraging his cast to do everything with microcosmic shrugs and inscrutable glances. The performances are uniformly excellent (special mention goes to Kaurismaki veteran Kati Outinen as Arletty, a model of stoic grace) but the real power comes from the direction. Kaurismäki’s favoured shot is a not-quite-head-on close-up, the aperture open to catch every open pore or line. It ought to be unflattering, but instead it’s somehow noble. André Wilms as Marcel exudes avuncular warmth, while Blondin Miguel as Idrissa has an astonishing face, as soulful and defiant and timeless as Falconetti in The Passion Of Joan Of Arc.