Le Havre is Aki Kaurismäki’s first film since 2006, which begs the question: is the previously prolific Finnish director slowing down with age, or is he having difficulty finding financing? Directed with a lighter touch than usual, and coming complete with a real feel-good element, this charming fable could (if not provide the box-office smash he deserves) certainly win him some new fans.
Although Kaurismäki’s films have always had a social element, his recent work has tackled such issues more directly. Thus we had unemployment in Drifting Clouds (1996) and homelessness in The Man without a Past (2002), and now in Le Havre we have immigration. The simple plot involves a young African boy (Blondin Miguel), who arrives at the French port in a shipping container and is helped by locals to hide from the authorities.
Filmed with the same apparent simplicity that marked his debut Crime and Punishment (1983) and all 16 subsequent films, Le Havre is unmistakably a Kaurismäki film. This ‘simplicity’ - still cameras, close-ups of objects and faces, head-on camera angles - somehow seems quirkier and more unusual now than ever before. In a world where filmmakers seem so eager to show off their talents and innovations, a Kaurismäki shot of a pair of shoes seems to be from a different place and time (or perhaps just from Finland).
Le Havre is Kaurismäki’s second film in French (after La vie de bohÃ¨me, 1992), and despite being shot on location in the Normandy port, with its docks and run-down housing (reminiscent of depictions of Helsinki in earlier films), what we are given is a France of the imagination, and more particularly, of Kaurismäki’s cinematic imagination. From the opening shots of suspicious-looking men in trenchcoats with upturned collars, to accordion music playing in cafés, to the friendly grocer’s and baker’s shops (not a hypermarket in sight), we are reminded of the 30s working-class poetic realism of Le Jour se Leve (1939) and Quai des Brumes (1938), or even the 50s crime films of Jean-Pierre Melville and Jacques Becker. The character’s names more clearly reference French cinema history - thus we have Doctor Becker and even an Arletty (after the star of Le Jour se Leve). Other characters are given famous French names - Flaubert and Manet - while the lead character, and protector of the downtrodden, is interestingly named Marcel Marx.
Of course Kaurismäki films, whether filmed in England, France or Finland, are all really set in what has been called ‘Akiland’. It’s a strange, bleak but beautiful world of overcast skies and odd-looking people, where all the cars were built before 1980; guitars are played with extra twang; and electronic music, computers, mobile phones and supermarkets have not been and never will be invented. In Le Havre, taciturn French replace close-mouthed Finns, and the old cars are Citroëns, but this is still clearly Akiland. He even finds an equivalent to his Finnish rockabilly bands with the appearance of the legendary (in Normandy, at least) Roberto Piazza of 70s French pub-rockers Little Bob Story. André Wilms, as the world-weary shoeshine Marcel Marx, gives a typically Akiland performance, and Kaurismäki regular Kati Outinen (whose face Kaurismäki’s camera can’t help but linger on) plays his wife. The guitar track is provided by The Renegades, whose Finnish hit ‘Matelot’ seems so perfect I can’t help but wonder if the film was made to fit the song.
Although Kaurismäki defends this stylised world as merely his personal preference (he finds modern cars ugly and likes twangy guitars, apparently), this skewed reality is perfect for fables and fairy tales such as this. Such a heart-warming tale in any other hands could so easily become schmaltzy (a Spielberg remake would be awful), but the deadpan delivery and endless idiosyncrasies counterbalance this tendency.
As in all of Kaurismäki’s films, there is a strong anti-authoritarian streak in Le Havre. His film has the feeling of an Ealing comedy - such as Whiskey Galore! (1949) - with plucky underdogs and a downtrodden community standing up to some faceless authority. But it is there in his style too: in those close-ups that linger just a little bit longer than is necessary, in his genuine love of the unconventional, and his ability to find it in the seemingly mundane. It is this that makes Kaurismäki so special, and why this film should be another step on his move from being a Finnish national treasure to a truly global one.