Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Sep 20, 2011 3:43 am 
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Play that old tune again, Aki

Kaurismäki adheres strictly to his signature style here, the usual actors, the deadpan dialogue and sad sack characters, the bright colors, emphasis on blues and greens, direct lighting on actors, sharp images, ironically clear camerawork and editing. But there's something awry: the gloom is missing. The director has said he alwys wanted to have been born earlier to have been active in WWII resistance, and to evoke that, using many references to films of the period like Porte des Brumes and Casablanca and classic directors like Marcel Carné (references in the protagonists' names), Jean-Pierre Melville, Robert Bresson and others. But on its own terms, "Le Havre" is a continual pleasure, seamlessly blending morose and merry n, he filmed a story about a down-at-the heels Frenchman, reduced to shining shoes in the railway station, who becomes a clandestine working-class hero by hiding a young African illegal. For the dyed-in-the-wool Kaurismäki fan there are many little pleasures here but the big pleasure of bathing in a negativism so austere it makes you shiver -- that is totally lacking. Maybe the New York Film Festival jurors picked Le Havre because it's such a homage too French film classics. It's even got an aging Jean-Pierre Léaud in it, as a bad guy, an informer.

Kaurismäki's films always have an out-of-time retro style, which makes the evocation of the French resistance in a modern time setting not a stretch for him. He puts together one of his Finnish regulars, Kati Outinen, as the wife, Arletti, who takes ill but then miraculously recovers, and a French one, Andre Wilms, who was featured in three of his previous films, as the hero, Marcel Marx. Marx and a Vietnamese cohort are getting fewer and fewer shoe shining jobs since everybody is beginning to war sneakers. The camera opens up with a shot of arriving railway passengers' legs, all ending with sneakered feet. In a typically deadpan Kaurismäki sequence, one of Macel's customers gets gunned down after a shoe shine but Marcel only says, "well, at least I got paid first." Kafkaesque menace abounds here (with Kafka even red from to the ailing Arletti), but the horror is distinctly muted.

Hence when a container is found that's been left sitting for a week or two, and it turns out to have a group of African stowaways in it, they are all sitting around in the box, perfectly well, still, nicely lighted. One of them is a young boy, Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), who bounds out of the box and runs away. Marcel is destined to find him and save him and see that he gests to go to London where the waylaid container box was headed and where he has family. After finding him hiding in the water and bringing him food, Marcel protects Idriss at his house. His wife has gone to the hospital due to an undefined but possibly fatal illness (she never looks sick, nor will she allow the old, burnt-out looking doctor to tell Marcel that it's serious). Idriss stays hidden without any problems, shining shoes or washing dishes when needed. He also speaks perfect French.

Marcel gets help from his shopkeeper neighbors, who forgive his debts more willingly now in complicity against the mean police. But nothing must help it, Marcel needs to raise 3,000 euros to pay a man to take Idriss to London illegally. To raise this sum he gives a charity concert. This droll event features an aging rock musican-singer with a puffy head of white hair called Little Bob (Roberto Piazza).

It's a pleasure -- chiefly visual, but otherwise cinematic -- to watch Kaurismäki at work. His bright colored yet restrained style, and his use of cameraman Timo Salminen and editor Timo Linnasalo show a look and rhythm that are elegant and consistent. Everything he includes in a film becomes Kaurismäki. And there are those that will like the director even more with an ubeat, updated theme. However, it's really not the same without the pessimism. Without it, the drollness loses its edge. Hard to see the point, really, or at least the necessity of showing this in as selective a film festival as New York.

Le Havre was included at Cannes and Toronto as well as the NYFF (and other festivals); it will be released theatrically in France, Sweden, and Slovenia in December 2011. Screened and reviewed as part of the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center. Also opens theatrically in New York October 21 (Janus Films).

Reviewed earlier: Lights in the Dusk (2006).

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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