Le Havre

4 Dec

Title: Le Havre
Year: 2011
Director: Aki Kaurismäki
Writer: Aki Kaurismäki
Starring: André Wilms, Kati Outinen, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Blondin Miguel
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Runtime: 93 min
Major Awards: –
IMDb Rating: 7.6
Rotten Tomatoes: 98%

Oh, what a brilliant little film Le Havre is. Seriously, it’s a near perfect combination of witty deadpan humor with sweetness and sadness and everything that comes in between, it’s just a lovely film, unassuming throughout and, what with it being about illegal aliens, it also happens to be a really timely film for these days. More importantly, it should be the film that will make the name Aki Kaurismäki mean something to you, this is a gem of a film by his, one that takes a simple little story but gives it so much grace and style that it’s hard not to be drawn into this sort of fable he’s constructed for us to watch, touching upon all of the French cinematic greats along the way and making it look easy.

The film of course takes its name from its setting, the industrial port city located in northern France, an ideal place to tell this story in, a story that’s about the solidarity that people can show, a stylized fable shot with impeccable taste that reflects an ideal kid of society, but that never once thinks it’s set in one other than the one we have. Yes, it’s an utopian kind of reality that Mr. Kaurismäki presents to us with a helluva lot of warmth, a quality that if you know the man’s work (and if you don’t, then go right ahead and load up your Netflix queue) you’ll know is not one he dabbles in all that much, and yet now that he does, and shows us goodness and kindness in a small community, we see that his preferred style of deadpan comedy fits in extremely well within these new, kinder tones, it’s just kind of crazy to think this is the same guy that gave us The Man Without a Past.

Yet it serves this film right that it’s being made by Mr. Kaurismäki, a guy you wouldn’t normally associate with the warmer side of things shown here, because if the story about a young African refugee who comes under the protection of an older Frenchman who shines shoes for a living and his tight-knit community had been handled by someone else the results probably wouldn’t have been this great. Think about it, that plot line more often than not would mean either a hard-hitting film that all about social consciousness or some melodrama that only wants tears from your eyes. By having a guy like Mr. Kaurismäki handle things, however, we have a guy that knows we know that life can be pretty shitty, and instead focuses on showing us how to appreciate the little things in life and, more importantly, how to be good people in crummy circumstances. Don’t be surprised if Renoir or Tati come to mind.

In 1992 Mr. Kaurismäki gave us La Vie de Bohème which had André Wilms playing Marcel, a bohemian poet and playwright having a rough time making a living in the Parisian streets. And this film actually stars André Wilms as Marcel again, twenty years later, though nowadays Marcel is the shoeshine man I spoke of before, a man who lives a modest life but one he likes, with a devout wife, an awesome dog and routine interactions with the many characters that make up his community in Le Havre. It’s obviously just a nice shoutout to his fans who have seen that film from two decades ago, because you don’t need to know anything about Marcel going into this film.

Marcel’s routine life however is then taken for a loop as he meets Idrissa, a young undocumented immigrant from Gabon. Marcel starts helping the boy escape from the arms of the law, and trying to get him to a safe life that doesn’t include the police getting a hold of him and sending him back home. And it’s just awesome how it’s all done, Le Havre acts as this sort of love letter to France, to the French cinema of the forties and fifties, including the appearance of Pierre Étaix in the film, a comedic legend in France who collaborated with the likes of Jacques Tati and Robert Bresson. It’s little nods to great art in this film that make it all that more exquisite to really indulge in, and the whole feel of simplicity and its light pacing of this film make it feel like it too belongs in another era of filmmaking.

Not to say that Le Havre is too deeply involved in some kind of nostalgic attitude throughout, because that’s not the case, the love for that era is clear in pretty much every frame, that’s true, and it’s pretty much all about classic traditions and a community sticking together, but deep down inside, whether it’s the humor or just the whole spirit and style, it feels very much like a modern beast, something with a bit more flavor. Le Havre has Mr. Kaurismäki just having a ball, embracing a new kind of mood for him, paying homage to films and a time he so clearly loves, but all the while keeping very true to his aesthetic, and to his impeccably witty deadpan comedy that really make this film the gem that it is.

This is what a really great departure for any director should be like, one that sees a talented filmmaker trying to tell a story one normally wouldn’t associate with him, which certainly applies to the warmer and humbler style of Le Havre, but telling it in a way that’s still very much his own, which is certainly the case here. I sincerely loved this film to bits, and the buzz Mr. Kaurismäki is spreading is that this is but the first in a trilogy of films he wants to make about life in port cities, wanting to make sequels based in Germany and Spain, that’s a genius idea, and I really hope he gets to make them, and that he gets his dog, Laika who appears here as Marcel’s pet, to be in those as well.

Grade: A-


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