Aki Kaurismaki always had two ambivalent qualities in his films: the ability to keep a certain distance, on the opposite side of let's say Hollywood, that tries to force feelings -either in its soaked-to-tears dramas or its feel-good comedies- and a certain naive take on life and its adventures. He can observe the world with an innocent child's eyes or he can let one of his characters do so; if you are acquainted with his filmography, you certainly know what I mean. Likewise, a retro feeling is usually present, even if his stories are situated in our very much post-modern world.
His new venture Le Havre (2011) has all the above qualities; the distance is kept even more here, the French language helping out a great deal; Kaurismaki opted to film in French in this French-Finnish co-production, rather than in his mother tongue, which gives an extra dimension of "otherness" to his heroes, as they have a mixed soul. Moreover, French language allows personal space to be maintained at a great extend, appearances to be kept and passions to be filtered at all times, especially the old French language used here, paying homage to French cinematography of the first half of the 20th century. The pointing irony and the calm but not less deep sarcasm are there to allow enemies behave like best friends. The retro feeling is accentuated with the main occupation of the protagonist: he is a former Parisian bohemian turned into a shoe-shiner, whose name is Marcel (Proust) (Karl) Marx -yes, the film is throbbing with obvious and hidden references. Shoe-shiner, though. I mean, who would never use the services of a shoe-shiner? It's liberating that the time has come for me to share this, but I always feel it's degrading to make somebody shine your shoes while you have them still on; you are standing like a King, and they have to kneel like servants, no, excuse me, but that's not correct. But, then, it might be even worse not to help him make a living. Right. Let me proceed.
Now, this distance I talked about; it's very much there, due to clever distracting techniques that provide a Brechtian lack of identification to the viewer. Then, why was I sobbing all the way? That was a difficult ride, you got it. Observing somebody having a hard time making ends meet from so close is one thing; observing one of the world's biggest problems, immigration, illegal immigration for that sake, is another. Kaurismaki builds up the anticipation with true expertise: the police, the first aid medical department, journalists, special forces, everybody gathers around that suspicious container. While the night keeper was making his usual tour, he heard something which sounded like a baby crying from the inside. The container originated from some African country, which makes the hype soar. Will it be a tiger jumping out or an elephant?
Everybody who gathered there knows more or less what they will find, and they are ready for it. Lifeless bodies would be a huge problem, but we are always ready for problems, especially the ones with a fast solution. Maybe even lifeless bodies do not even qualify as a huge problem, after all. Soil always needs fertilizer. In this fairy tale of the loving poor neighbourhood's inhabitants, the treacherous neighbour and the golden-hearted police officer, things should not go easy for the French authorities, though, otherwise the storyline would stand still. Are French authorities relieved not to be confronted with the tortured end? Or just annoyed because of extra complications? (no, I'm not being cruel, just purely descriptive here).
Either they like it or not, the complications are there to stay, dark-skinned and exhausted from the big journey; their eyes opening with difficulty; they have forgotten how bright the sunlight is, travelling in a dark container in the deep end of a cargo ship. They are caught by surprise; this was not what they hoped for, not quite. Firearms pointing at them was the least welcoming gesture they expected from their very own land of plenty. They are too discouraged to even move. Apart from one brave young boy, who will escape without giving it a second thought, and will take the story further; he will also give every single person he meets the satisfaction of having done a good deed; he will equally give every single viewer the illusion that the world is a miraculous place where the good prevails. It's a warm, rewarding feeling, even if it only lasts for the tiny fraction of a second.
The tension of this scene is what initiated my tears; the unbearable weight of the entire world's suffering was placed on my shoulders and it was too hard to handle. Being an expat, I guess I can relate more to such a representation. We all should, I feel, try and relate to it; running away from your motherland, paying your place in an illegal transportation cell for gold, facing the unknown, even a possible permanent end, being exploited. Even depicted in pink colours, this is a wound that hurts from the inside.
I will leave all the rest for you to discover; the praise for Jean-Pierre Darrousin and Andre Wilms, Kati Outinen and the yellow dress, the happy dog, and the cameo appearance of Jean-Pierre Leaud, as well as the fun moments and the laughs. Yes, you can!
*Le Havre is Finland's official submission for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars. Even though it's in French. What a post-post-modern world, mum.