Film history has proved that there is an inherent gamble involved when a filmmaker decides to use a different country as a backdrop for their story telling.
For every ‘21 Grams’ there is a ‘Blueberry Nights’ and it was with this in mind that I went to Aki Kaurismaki’s latest film ‘Le Havre’
Kaurismaki has made his name in his native Finland. His films have more often than not looked at the fringes of Finnish society and as such Finland itself has almost appeared as a character in itself so how would his style suit the French port town of Le Havre? Would he miss his ever-present ‘Leading Lady’?
The result, I am very pleased to say, is a film that will not only please Kaurismaki fans but should also introduce a whole new audience to the delights of this idiosyncratic film maker.
The film takes place in the port town of Le Havre and deals with the subject of illegal immigration. This is not a subject you would automatically associate with comedy but Kaurismaki takes this very gritty theme and gives it a very human edge.
Marcel Marx (Andre Wilms) is an aging shoeshine, barely making a living around the train station of Le Havre, he lives in a poor neighbourhood with his ailing wife (Kaurismaki stalwart Kati Outinen).
One day he stumbles upon a young African boy, Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) who has escaped from a recently shipped container carrying several illegal immigrants. He is on his way to London to try and find his mother but now finds himself stuck in Le Havre and being pursued aggressively by the French authorities.
As Arletty is taken into hospital Idrissa follows Marcel home and the two forge an unlikely alliance as Marcel calls on the neighbourhood to help in getting Idrissa across the channel to find his mother.
Shot in Kaurismaki’s distinctive style with the help of Cinematographer Timo Salminen, the film is awash with toned down colours and unusual light sources so each scene feels like it could be an expertly crafted photograph.
There are also the characters themselves. This is not a film of pretty people but every character in the film has a face that tells a story and this in turn brings the neighbourhood to life.
For a film that deals with such a contemporary issue it is also strangely timeless, if it wasn’t for the occasional shot of refugees in holding camps or real-life news footage of camp evictions this film could be taking place in the 1950’s.
The little Boulangerie that Marcel occasionally ‘borrows’ bread from and the little bar in which much of the action takes place both have a nostalgic feel as does the sense of community that the narrative relies on.
On first viewing this could be read as a simple comedy but it’s a film that works on many levels and Kaurismaki makes us pause for reflection at mid point with a ten second hold on a Franz Kafka novel.
What is the danger we are supposed to ponder during this existential pause? Is it authority? The break down of community? Old age? I think you can take your pick really.
In keeping with Kaurismaki’s back catalogue, ‘Le Havre’ is an underdog story, a film about the outsiders having their moment and, as with many of his other films, it looks at the fringes of society. In the hands of this skilful filmmaker we can see that those fringes are the same wherever you go.
Le Havre is showing daily at Cornerhouse up until April 19 and offers the chance to see the work of one of the few genuine auteurs working at the moment. Visit here for more details.