What would it take to become so moved by the plight of another—someone whose background and circumstances were radically different from your own—that you rearranged your life in order to offer that person succor, even at great risk to yourself and your loved ones? History tends to lionize sacrifices of this kind, since they are so rare. But can we imagine a world in which they were reflexive, an automatic function of our shared humanity? It seems fair to say that the events of the previous century have made this humanist narrative—in both the cinematic and philosophical sense—harder and harder to put our faith in. Nevertheless, Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre (2011) boldly flouts cynicism and offers a glimpse of just such utopian empathy.
Kaurismäki’s story involves a man of the most modest means coming to the rescue of a young stranger, and his community almost instinctually rallying around the effort. For his selfless good deed, our Samaritan is rewarded with no less than a miracle. What we are being presented with here is an image of our world as we all wish it could be, if only we cared enough for one another. It’s a portrait of a humble man doing his very best imitation of Christ.
Those of us who have been following Kaurismäki’s cinema over the past twenty-five or so years will not be surprised by this vote of confidence in the human race. We may immediately recognize un filmd’Aki by his patented brand of affective reserve and rumpled formalism—he favors blue and beige foregrounds that hold the light with a warm, painterly glow; tends to limit camera movement; tamps down overt drama from his performers; and envelops this deadpan field of action with a unique musical ambience, chiefly derived from 1950s and ’60s rockabilly. There’s also a fair amount of free-flowing alcohol. But it’s his artistic and empathetic alignment with society’s outcasts that truly defines his cinema. The world of Finland’s highest-profile auteur, not unlike that of Howard Hawks, is one of hard-won faith in basic decency, an unsentimental humanism that can even squeeze in space for love.
Kaurismäki’s work demonstrates an almost unswerving concern with the working classes and the lumpen proletariat, resulting in an oeuvre unparalleled in its breadth of humanist generosity. These are lives of negotiation and muddling through, not of high drama. Sometimes, as in the case of his 1996 masterwork Drifting Clouds, the director details the daily struggles of people trying to improve their lot and realize their dreams within the circumscribed agency available to them as the long-term poor. In other instances, such as 1990’s bleak cri de coeur The Match Factory Girl, individuals are simply trying to survive. And in still others, like the warmhearted comedy The Man Without a Past, from 2002, Kaurismäki is mostly content to paint a broad cinematic mural of life on society’s margins, which can be a space of simple pleasures and deep camaraderie—if the law and the authorities have the decency to leave a thriving community alone.
Naturally, this is a big if. And in addition to Kaurismäki’s commitment to using his idiosyncratic auteur cinema to champion the underdog, there is another major sociopolitical thread that runs through virtually all of his films—even his most overtly apolitical works, the shaggy-dog larks with the Finnish cult novelty rock band the Leningrad Cowboys, made between 1989 and 1994—an abiding streak of anarchism, a dedication to free association, borderless states, and the absolute right of all to have access to everything they need, not just to survive but to thrive. That is, Kaurismäki’s cinema is a celebration of the right to happiness, good friends, good drink, rock and roll. Wealth should have absolutely nothing to do with one’s access to life’s pleasures. Those who have must give, and those who do not should never give up. If there is one bedrock value that underpins all moral aspects of Kaurismäki’s universe, it is best summed up in the title of one of his short films: Always Be a Human.
Le Havre carries on this grand project, but it differs somewhat from Kaurismäki’s earlier work in being more unabashedly, and directly, political. While Kaurismäki’s films have always engaged the real world, they have tended to do so in rather general terms. Le Havre depicts a more specific situation, one instance of so-called illegal immigration that can stand in for the experiences of multitudes across the globe. All European nations are grappling with how best to respond to human beings who wish, or need, to move. Even the “liberal” Scandinavian countries have undergone unexpected soul-searching regarding the backlash against immigrant communities, both rhetorical (the 2005 Jyllands-Posten scandal in Denmark, involving the publication of cartoons of Muhammad) and horrifyingly material (the July 2011 murder of seventy-seven innocent people in Norway by ultranationalist Anders Behring Breivik). However, contemporary crises, from the banlieue riots to the veil ban, make France a particularly knotty site for these global questions, and Kaurismäki knows this. What is unusual about Le Havre’s intervention into our geopolitical moment is its unflagging optimism, its assumption that our best selves will emerge to meet the challenges of history.
The story focuses on the strategically named Marcel Marx (André Wilms), an old shoeshiner. He and his wife, Arletty (Kaurismäki regular Kati Outinen), are living a modest life in the French port town of the title when she’s hospitalized with a terminal illness. Not long afterward, on the docks, a noise is heard inside a cargo container just off a freighter from Gabon. Inside is a large group of Africans being smuggled into France. All are detained except for one young boy, Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), who makes a break for it. He ends up in Marcel’s care, and eventually everyone on Marcel’s block (some of whom have never had much use for the perpetually hard-up boot polisher) pitches in to conceal Idrissa from the authorities.
Le Havre engages with issues of African immigration, legal status, and the basic rights of citizenship—fundamental questions at the heart of contemporary Europe and the legacy of its social democratic states. But rather than simply hold forth on such complex matters, Kaurismäki explores them through stylistic means. Formally, his films have always been about bodies in space, their movement and their immobility. Filmic space in his work is both abstract—often flattened, organized through light and color into painterly mass—and soulful, “lived-in.” Whether he is using cinematography proper or the enveloping capacity of offscreen sound, describing landscape or interior, his work is primarily about the dialectic of freedom and confinement.
In purely constructivist terms, Kaurismäki is a curious combination of Robert Bresson and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Bresson, the Catholic materialist, examined the possible redemption of the world through piercing attention to its surfaces, the movement of objects through dense air, a hand as it slices an empty frame—that is, the sudden shift from nothing to something, or vice versa, which may not always be felicitous but at least reflects change, and thus life and hope. Fassbinder, by contrast, treated filmic space as a void that, at any moment, could be filled with violence or, since human desire is erratic, simply an accusing look or a sexual overture or a reversal of political fortune. Despite their diametrically opposed sensibilities, both men understood filmic space as the gulf across which desires were staged and traversed.
Kaurismäki understands this too, but he has a very different sense of desire, one that is altogether more casual, more fundamentally human, and in that respect more shared, essentially social. When, for example, in Le Havre we see Marcel’s small street, with the pub, the bakery, and the grocer’s shop, we are given tight glances down the diagonal alleyway, the shops illuminated and the rest of the area cloaked in a generalized darkness. These are the spaces that house Marcel’s neighbors and allies; the larger area beyond this street is uncertain. Or when Detective Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) first enters the bar, the camera isolates him against the door, and then tracks him as he makes his way through the once gregarious, now silent working-class patrons, parting them like a sea. Broad Fassbinderian vision frequently gives way to close, intimate Bressonian exchange—the social world as a navigation of multiple registers of bodily need.
The social aspect of Kaurismäki’s cinematic space can perhaps best be summed up by reference to the great French historian and urban critic Michel de Certeau. In The Practice of Everyday Life, Certeau describes a kind of commonplace, unsystematic anarchism whereby people, especially those living under duress or in some of the most economically unfavorable conditions, manage to “make do,” day after day. He notes the difference between “strategies,” which are the prerogative of the privileged, and “tactics,” those on-the-ground, in-the-moment spatial practices forged by those who have to improvise. Kaurismäki’s cinema is one of tactics, and he treats the spaces he describes as occasions for the elaboration of those tactics.
This means that the characters Kaurismäki examines (although “examines” sounds far too clinical for the deep affection in which he obviously holds them) are thinking rather than emoting, and are, in some sense, simply too busy for drama. The classical signals of overindulged bourgeois subjectivity (a cinematic holdover from D. W. Griffith’s Victorianism) have no place in Kaurismäki’s world. But at the same time, there is a playfulness and complete lack of claustrophobia in his cinema. Among the world’s “art film” auteurs, he has always stood out for his unpretentiousness and accessibility, even in his most deadpan, overtly abstract films. This is partly because Kaurismäki’s universe, whether whimsical or downcast, is always a well-defined, lived-in place. His camera describes cheap flats and flophouses, barrooms and shops, and all the palpable spaces that connect them—the streets and alleys, the weed-covered fields, and even the distance across an empty room. But he is able to abjure what we typically think of as realism—the uninflected copying of the surfaces of things, including so-called normal behavior—because his flat, declarative style, while abstract, is not an abstraction. Rather, it presents language, action, and environment as part of a total way of being—what the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called the “habitus.” Kaurismäki’s is a different kind of realism, and once we adjust to its rhythms, a great many of us can find ourselves reflected in its dingy mirror.
While Kaurismäki’s films are so often about the lifeworlds of urban Helsinki, he is a distinctly cosmopolitan filmmaker, and Le Havre is not his first feature made outside of Finland. In fact, it is his second set entirely in France. His first, 1992’s La vie de bohème, is an adaptation of Henri Murger’s novel that takes place in Paris and stars Wilms as the avant-garde playwright Marcel, one of a number of dissolute, fringe-dwelling artists who scrape by, or fail to, in the gutters of the city. Le Havre could be said to represent a formal recapitulation or “second verse” of that film (though certainly not a sequel). Wilms appears again as Marcel; he speaks of having once lived “la vie de bohème dans Paris.”
It could be said that Kaurismäki himself has observed an itinerary similar to Marcel’s, shifting his thematic focus away from romantic losers and toward spontaneous political gestures. Kaurismäki has certainly not left bohemia behind entirely, like Marcel has, but Le Havre is indeed a film that depicts the political and juridical stakes in contemporary Europe in a far more straightforward, less attenuated manner than a film like The Man Without a Past, or such pastiche works as Juha (1999) or Lights in the Dusk (2006), which triangulate questions of authority through genre codes (silent cinema and film noir, respectively). And unlike other Kaurismäki films that chronicle the lives of the down-and-out, Le Havre does not and cannot offer semipermanent life on society’s margins as a solution. Idrissa is, as they say, “on the grid,” and so Le Havre must engage with a new set of problems—human smuggling, detention centers, national immigration police, levels of jurisdiction, self-appointed informers.
For most of his career, Kaurismäki has made Helsinki the laboratory for his views on human ethics: to “always be a human” means negotiating the tight spaces we are given, through desire and creativity, remembering that any society will be judged by how it cares for its most vulnerable members, that empathy, solidarity, and resistance on behalf of one’s fellow human beings is a political choice, and that “society” is little more than the sum total of such choices. His internationalist projects, of which Le Havre is the most fully realized, examine these imperatives within different cultural contexts. But the ideals are the same. (Fittingly, Kaurismäki plans to make Le Havre part of a global trilogy, with subsequent films set in Spain and Germany.)
Kaurismäki’s Le Havre is a community, one in which people don’t think twice about helping an immigrant (just as the best of them would have hidden a Jew from the Vichy government years before). And in the coda, both a woman and nature itself are reborn. Sappy? I don’t know. Perhaps instead we should call it “counterfactual utopianism.” Kaurismäki uses cinema to envision a world in which the love of humanity overcomes borders, even the one between life and death. His film demonstrates the necessary humanist dialectic—that opening to the other, being changed, means becoming the other, shifting who our family, the very “we,” is. A guarded boundary is a death sentence—the barricade of a self that is destined to wither.
Michael Sicinski is a writer and critic who specializes in the analysis of experimental cinema. He is a frequent contributor to Cinema Scope, Cineaste, and Cargo. He also teaches film studies in the Art History Department at the University of Houston.
In The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, published in 2003, critic and film historian David Thomson ends his favorable entry on Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki by noting that the Helsinki-based auteur might gain some edge if “his sardonic eye turned to politics.” It’s hard to imagine what a political film by Kaurismäki might look like, given how masterfully he has balanced deadpan humor and dour heartbreak in his wry tales of social estrangement among the working classes; films like The Match Factory Girl and Ariel feel more like poetic, strangely poignant chamber works. But now, at least in spirit, we have one. Kaurismäki’s latest comic fable, Le Havre, which won the FIPRESCI prize at Cannes in May and is Finland’s official Oscar entry, channels some of Europe’s not-so-welcoming attitudes toward newly arrived immigrants and transforms the conflict into an amiably humanistic fairy tale resonating with goodwill.
Septuagenarian Marcel Marx (André Wilms), a former artist, lives with his wife Arletty (Kaurismäki regular Kati Outinen) in the titular French port city where he makes a bare living shining shoes at the train station and frequents a neighborhood bar patronized by shiftless, long-haired men. Nearby, port authorities pry open a storage container on the docks and discover a group of Gabonese immigrants hiding inside, apparently bound for Britain. One of them, a boy named Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), escapes mustachioed police inspector Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) and crosses paths with Marcel, who hospitably takes him in and then attempts to locate his family in London. When Monet begins to suspect the elder man is illegally housing Idrissa, Marcel enlists the help of neighborhood acquaintances and shopkeepers to shield the boy until he can make arrangements for his safe passage to England. Meanwhile, Arletty is diagnosed with a terminal illness after some routine hospital tests but decides not to tell her husband, hoping for the best. Slight in design but emotionally potent, Le Havre carries all of Kaurismäki’s quirky trademarks: mordant one-liners and mannered acting, absurd exchanges and static shots of comically immobile characters reacting impassively to extraordinary occurrences. But this time, the sadsack aura of the Kaurismäki oeuvre gives way to a cheerier vision of collective dignity and social justice that points toward a possible future, even though it lives, for the moment at least, purely in the director’s imagination.
Filmmaker corresponded with Kaurismäki via e-mail about French cinema, Finnish writers, the plight of refugees, and why John Wayne caught a lucky break from Ford and Hawks. Le Havre opens Friday at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and IFC Center in New York.
Filmmaker: Le Havre grew out of your concern that the problem of refugees attempting to seek safe haven in EU countries has not been soundly addressed. What spurred your decision to shoot the film in France?
Kaurismäki: Logically it should have been a Mediterranean town since most of the refugees from Africa land to Greece, Italy, and Spain. But since logic has nothing to do with cinema I picked Le Havre after driving all the coast from Genoa to the Belgium border. The refugee problem (and the shame of their disgraceful treatment) is all European and it doesn’t really matter in which country the film is shot in.
Filmmaker: Did you make the film partly in hopes that it would have a deeper resonance in Continental Europe, perhaps pricking the conscience of viewers in France, Germany, Austria?
Kaurismäki: I never think of audience when I shoot a film. Not because I wouldn’t be interested but because my experience tells me it is not worthwhile. Anyhow, it is clear that very few refugees are desperate or unlucky enough to end up in Finland.
Filmmaker: One possible idea advanced by Le Havre concerns how the health of a society depends on its attitudes toward immigrants, displaced persons and other so-called undesirables. Was this the starting point when you first outlined the tale?
Kaurismäki: Now when you mention it that seems to be one way to see the film, but this goes to the side of analysis, which is not my hobby. While writing there is no time and afterwards there is no sense, because nothing can be changed anymore.
Filmmaker: What was the process that led you to the characters?
Kaurismäki: My method is very simple: when I get the basic idea of the story, meaning the main character and his “problem,” I just forget the whole thing for about three months and after that print it out over a long weekend. Meanwhile, the subconscious has (hopefully) done the job. I invent the characters while writing. In the case of Le Havre it took me a long time to find the profession of the protagonist but it came easily when I got my shoes polished in Portugal. The man was surprised by his 20 Euros tip.
Filmmaker: Le Havre unfolds like a fairy tale – life as we might wish it to be – putting an imaginative, hopeful spin on Idrissa’s fate as the story resolves. What accounts for the optimism of the film?
Kaurismäki: The whole refugee-business is a miserable thing with too many sad endings in real life. So a fiction film dealing with that needs minimum two happy endings to make some kind of balance.
Filmmaker: You’ve always had an affinity for the working class, as well as outcasts, losers, drifters, and loners. Instead of the sentimentalism we might find in humanistic films of the past or the gritty sincerity of today’s social realists, films like The Match Factory Girl or Drifting Clouds approach things from the standpoint of absurdity. Do your films reflect a distinctly existential worldview that you would claim as your own?
Kaurismäki: Since I´m a 100 percent auteur it is most probable that my films reflect my humor and the way I see society and human relationships.
Filmmaker: Characteristically, your films are dour and light-hearted in equal measure: Is the comic register advantageous for touching an audience emotionally or is it just your natural mode?
Kaurismäki: I said earlier that I don’t think of audience while shooting and it is true, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t make the films for spectators. A director who can’t manipulate a spectator’s feelings and make him/her laugh or be afraid should change his or her profession. The manipulation is what people are paying for when they go to cinema.
Filmmaker: Your first film, Crime and Punishment, was an earnest adaptation of Dostoyevsky. With Calamari Union, you began to favor elements that have defined your work since: deadpan humor, minimal dialogue, mannered acting styles. What brought about the transition? How did you find your voice?
Kaurismäki: I left humor away from Crime and Punishment partly because the book didn’t have any and partly because the adaptation itself was complicated enough. I regretted that later and maybe that is a reason why my Hamlet some years later was all but serious. Before the Dostoyevsky film I wrote two films which [my brother] Mika [Kaurismäki] directed and already in them I created the dialogue style I’m blamed for.
Filmmaker: Did your early work with Mika influence your sensibilities in some way?
Kaurismäki: The early films were my screenplays directed by Mika. This gave an illusion of a common style, which never existed.
Filmmaker: Little Bob’s sequence in Le Havre was one of my favorites, and is part of a lineage of live musical performances in your films (Joe Strummer, the Franks, Leningrad Cowboys). What does your obvious passion for the sounds and styles of early American rock and rockabilly stem from?
Kaurismäki: All the Finnish youngsters born in late ’50s or early ’60s got American and English blues, rhythm and blues and rock’n’roll from their mother´s milk.
Filmmaker: Juha was a silent black-and-white film harkening back to the days of early cinema, and I Hired a Contract Killer nodded to the heyday of noir. Le Havre is chock-a-block with references to Melville and Clouzot, especially via the character played by Jean-Pierre Darroussin. Beyond homage, are these references perhaps a deeper means of connecting cinema past and present, at least when the story demands it?
Kaurismäki: I certainly hope so. My “style” — if it exists — is certainly more near Tati than Melville, but I wanted at least to have one character of both plus some Clouzot, Carné, Renoir etc., with a touch of French postwar neorealism plus this and that but just to have these references and tiny homages there, not really to be noticed. The director, however, whom I think more and more [about] nowadays is Charles Chaplin.
Filmmaker: I know you are a voracious reader and that your cinematic interests encompass everyone from Jean Vigo to Michael Powell, Melville to Ozu. Are there equivalent analogues for you in Finnish art, literature, film?
Kaurismäki: Even though Finland is a small country in many ways the literature has always been on a high level; Aleksis Kivi, Eino Leino, Juhani Aho, Pentti Haanpää, Mika Waltari, Marko Tapio, Hannu Salama, to mention some. There were also excellent painters in the earlier part of the 20th Century.
Filmmaker: What does Timo Salminen, your longtime cinematographer, contribute to your overall artistic vision?
Kaurismäki: I make the storytelling and frame the pictures, but Timo is almost totally free in lighting. But since we have worked together 30 years now there is no reason to even whistle anymore. The cooperation is quite automatic.
Filmmaker: Godard famously said that mobile camera shots implied a moral choice. Would you say the reverse is true?
Kaurismäki: He also said that the chair you are sitting on is political. For me it is just a chair and some stories benefit from a moving camera and some (like Tokyo Story) don’t.
Filmmaker: Could you give me a better sense of why working in 35mm and what you’ve called “deep screen space” is an absolute for you, and why even toying with new digital technologies holds no appeal?
Kaurismäki: I´m old enough to die with my boots on.
Filmmaker: Kati Outinen has a smaller role in Le Havre, but she’s been featured in so much of your work, often brilliantly playing a downtrodden but sympathetic type. Why does she continue to be a source of inspiration?
Kaurismäki: If they are good why change? Same goes with the whole crew. I don’t know if John Wayne was of any inspiration to Ford or Hawks but still they continued using him even though he was ugly as hell.
Filmmaker: When you consider your body of work on its own — not necessarily as it measures against the cinema closest to your heart — what’s your assessment?
Kaurismäki: Never look back.