Le Havre (2011)
Written & Directed by Aki Kaurismäki
Marcel Marx is a shoe shiner in the French port city of Le Havre who lives a simple life with his wife, Arletty. Once long ago in his youth, Marcel had ambitions to be a writer and bohemian but time and a need for money put an end to that. Arletty becomes suddenly ill with a dire prognosis that Marcel is kept unaware of. Around this time, a crate of immigrants from Gabon is discovered on the docks and one of them, Idrissa, a young boy escapes the police. Marcel and Idrissa cross paths and the old man decides to house the refugee without question while trying to locate the boy’s family so they can reunite. Inspector Monet is out in the neighborhoods searching for the boy and knows Marcel by reputation as being a scoundrel and liar.
From the opening scenes, it is apparent the style and tone of Le Havre are not going to be in line with the more contemporary and grim explorations of refugees and Europe’s reaction to the surge of immigration. The lighting and cinematography create a softened and heightened reality. The images recall early Technicolor which in turn makes the audience feel like it sees an idealized version of Northern France. The slight disassociation with reality continues with the way shots are framed during interior sequences, making space appear to be a stage where the performers are acting from. The acting is additionally directed in a way that undercuts the darkness that typically surrounds the social issues being discussed.
While following these cheerful yet poor inhabitants of Le Havre a new element is introduced, the arrival of African refugees. It’s interesting that director Aki Kaurismäki frames the police, militarized in the wake of the decades-long “war on terror” as incapable of using the force awarded to them correctly. As Idrissa runs from the docks one of the officers raises his semi-automatic rifle and is admonished by Inspector Monet for even pulling the weapon on the child. Monet does want law and order in his city, but it’s obvious he’s uncomfortable with the brutality on display from officers he doesn’t view as capable.
All of this sounds like you’d have a heavy, gloomy film on your hands, but because of the cinematography and quirky sense of humor that Aki Kaurismäki brings to the table, Le Havre ends up being more of crowd-pleaser style of movie. You might also feel like there are threads of American indie filmmaker Jim Jarmusch present which makes sense because Jarmusch and Kaurismäki are contemporaries and admirers of each other’s work. The use of music, especially music associated with the working classes like blues are integral to the moods and themes of Le Havre. Kaurismäki has stated in his original plans Idrissa would be discovered surrounded by dead family members in the crate on the docks but decided against that. He said in an interview with Indiewire that ironically, “I didn’t want to face that problem because I was making an uplifting film. When there’s no hope; there’s no reason to be pessimistic anymore.”
Le Havre isn’t a film that hit me as hard as I expected, mainly because of the intentional romantic disassociation with the reality of immigration. I understand that Kaurismäki is trying to subvert audience expectations of this kind of movie and tell a story that is more optimistic while trying to stay true to the plight of immigrants and refugees. Idrissa’s journey and the stakes of his survival are dire, but Kaurismäki doesn’t see this as a reason to mire the film in complete nihilism. Le Havre is a promise that the majority of people, the majority of the working class and the poor, still cling to the idea of the collective community. Kaurismäki believes that ordinary people will rally together against authority in the end and therein lies hope that our civilization will endure.