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At ‘Le Havre,’ A Rue-Tinted Fable Of Time And Transit

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
October 20, 2011

A contemporary fable set in a place constructed from blocks of French cinematic history, Le Havre is one of Aki Kaurismaki’s warmest, most engaging films. The movie is as deadpan and downbeat as any of the Finnish director’s earlier efforts, yet slouches its way to not one but two fairy-tale endings.

Kaurismaki isn’t much on dialogue, and the movie’s opening is just one of several sequences that suggest the work of silent clown Jacques Tati. Marcel Marx (Andre Wilms) and a fellow shoeshine man stand stiffly outside Le Havre’s train station, waiting for customers in an age when most people wear sneakers. A gangster type arrives, seemingly from one of Jean-Pierre Melville’s ’60s films, gets a shine and then walks out of the frame — and into a calamity that’s heard but not seen.

Marcel shrugs. He was once an aspiring artist, as recounted in the director’s previous French-language film, 1992′s La Vie de Boheme. But now he cares for little except his faithful dog and even more devoted wife, Arletty (Kaurismaki regular Kati Outinen). The latter is gravely ill, but too self-effacing to bother her husband with such distractions as her possible death.

Marcel’s detachment ends when immigration agents open a shipping container from Gabon and discover a dozen or so migrants inside. One of them, a boy, escapes. The next day, Marcel encounters Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) hiding near the docks. He decides to shelter him, and all but one of the shoeshine man’s neighbors are eager to help. (The rat is played by Jean-Pierre Leaud, who appeared in many Truffaut and Godard films.)

Idrissa doesn’t want to stay in France; he hopes to join his mother in London. As Marcel tries to arrange the trip, he’s tracked by police inspector Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), the sort of officious cad who’d collaborate with the Gestapo if this story were set in the 1940s — which it sometimes looks as if it is. Impeccably stylized, Le Havre makes modern industrial-port locations resemble sets from a classic French costume drama.

Kaurismaki, who shot many of his earlier films in black and white, has come to accept color. In fact, he and cinematographer Timo Salminen use it eloquently. They’ve devised a blue-tinted universe in which flashes of red and yellow are all the more potent for their scarcity. The reliance on primary colors is one of the director’s ways of making real-life sites appear otherworldly.

Immigration is a timely subject, and the movie includes other acknowledgements of the modern age, including a cellphone. But there are also rotary-dial phones, wooden vegetable carts and vinyl LPs containing music from the ’50s and older. In one lovely vignette, Idrissa puts on one of Marcel’s records and hears something halfway familiar: a blues by Blind Willie McTell.

Kaurismaki loves American-rooted rock and blues, and when Marcel decides to fund Idrissa’s trip to Britain with a “trendy charity concert,” he calls on one of Le Havre’s actual attractions, gray-haired rockabilly veteran Little Bob. To the Finnish director, a twangy guitar is as effective a Wayback Machine as performances that evoke silent cinema.

The movie’s droll absurdist touches include a bit in which a man enters a bar with a pineapple, and a scene in which Arletty’s friends, visiting her at the hospital, attempt to comfort her by reading out loud from Kafka. The latter moment could be a metaphor for Kaurismaki’s latest success: Le Havre plumbs the dank mists of 20th-century existentialism, but comes out the other side to find life freshly abloom. (Recommended) [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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