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

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Reviews -

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

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