The best intentions
France’s grim port city is the setting for this strangely charming drama of kind hearts in difficult circumstances, writes Donald Clarke
FEW DIRECTORS have quite so singular a voice as that possessed by Aki Kaurismäki. For 30 years the eccentric Finn has brought his charming retro-sensibility – a bit of Jacques Tati blended with incongruous kitchen sink – to the widest imaginable variety of subjects. All life is here, but not in the form you normally expect to find it.
With apologies to the good people of that northern French port city, the latest Kaurismäki project does not journey out with the most romantic title. The name “Le Havre” conjures up images of stalled motor cars, bad fast food
and afternoons spent dreaming of another, still-distant destination.
As expected, however, the director makes the ferry port all his own. He has indulged in some location shooting. Grey docks and looming vessels make an appearance. But the film is, for the most part, set in a vanished, proudly artificial version of working-class France. It takes place today, in the past and at no particular time. This man brings respectability to the word “charming”.
The scenario would suit a harsh neo-realist such as Ken Loach or Robert Guédiguian. Our hero is an elderly shoeshine, once a bohemian author, named (make of this what you will) Marcel Marx. Given breath by the hardy, solemn-faced André Wilms, Marcel spends his days trying to attract the attention of travellers, chatting to his loyal wife and hanging out in the sort of seedy bar that appears in so many Kaurismäki projects.
One day Marcel encounters an illegal immigrant from Africa who is trying to make his way to London. Assisted by various, equally open-minded neighbours, he offers the lad shelter and helps him avoid the attentions of a diligent – but decent – police detective (the reliably hangdog Jean-pierre Darroussin). But tragedy is looming at home. Marcel’s wife has contracted a serious disease and the prognosis is looking increasingly bleak.
Spoilsports may complain that Kaurismäki sometimes imposes his key tropes in slightly scattershot manner. Aki veterans will expect an appearance by a sat-upon, likable mutt. Sure enough, Laika, a yellow dog with sad eyes, delivers one of the film’s best performances.
Will some aging rock singer of dubious talent turn up to warble tunes from a possessed jukebox? Yes. Roberto Piazza offers Johnny Hallyday shapes as the bellowing Little Bob. The lounge lizards could have been beamed directly from earlier Kaurismäki pieces such as Leningrad Cowboys Go America or The Man Without a Past.
It is, however, difficult to begrudge such minor indulgences in a project that – rather than labouring under post-modern footnotes – swells with unbridled enthusiasm for its affectionately drawn characters. No other director could maintain this degree of optimism while telling such a superficially grim story.
Villains lurk politely in the shadows, while the decent workingclass folk of Le Havre struggle bravely to do the decent thing. Darroussin’s cop may dress like a film-noir sleuth: fedora clamped on head, black raincoat anally buttoned up. But his amiable manner reassures us that, when confronted with the inevitable moral quandary, he is certain to do the right thing.
Le Havre reminds us that Kaurismäki has always been at home to fairytales. Whereas those neo-realists regard neat, happy endings as a betrayal of narrative purity, the singular Finn embraces such denouements with the enthusiasm of a clever child. The new film closes with a quite outrageous gesture of kindness from a benevolent God.
Those on board the Kaurismäki Express will welcome the twist as a manifestation of the director’s unshakable humanity (and humanism). If you find yourself gurgling in furious disbelief then you can, perfectly reasonably, congratulate yourself on remaining true to our era’s stubborn nihilism.
A lovely film about unlovely things.
Just passing through: Laika and Blondin Miguel in Le Havre