Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismaki has always been free from a particular pressure of the modern world: the pressure to grow and change. You know, the one where we have to make more money, be better looking and forever fit, and go on better vacations than the Joneses (or Suzukis) and post the pictures on Facebook. None of that stuff exists in the world of Aki Kaurismaki.
With his name on over 30 titles since the 1980s, Kaurismaki has stuck to drawing tired, creased, working-class underdogs in low-rent surroundings, usually residing in some Northern European factory town. Nothing glamorous, profitable or sexy ever happens in a Kaurismaki story, and the director’s favorite leading lady, Kati Outinen, has a face so sad that if the Little Match Girl had survived until middle age, Outinen would be her.
Yet critics worldwide have consistently (albeit quietly) supported Kaurismaki, and he was almost given an Oscar in 2003 for Best Foreign Language Film (“The Man Without a Past”). Not that you’d ever catch Kaurismaki going near Hollywood, an institution that he once said has “melted everyone’s brains.”
What a treat, then, to see Kaurismaki’s latest, “Le Havre,” which broke Kaurismaki’s five-year absence since the wonderfully droll “Lights in the Dusk” when it was released overseas last year.
This time, Kaurismaki has transplanted his actors (including Outinen) to the French port city of Le Havre and created a tale with atypical political undertones. Like in almost all his stories, the centerpiece is a hangdog older man with no wealth or prospects, named Marcel Marx (Andre Wilms).
Marcel claims he was once a writer, but his current occupation is shoe-shiner. His daily life is confined in the neat triangle between work, a favorite bar and a miniscule apartment that he shares with his wife, Arletty (Outinen), and their dog, Laika. The barman (Francois Monnie) tells Marcel that Arletty is far too good for him, and Marcel replies that since no man on Earth is good enough for Arletty, he may as well fill in.
Marcel’s well-ordered universe is ruptured when he encounters Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), an 11-year-old African refugee with hopes to reach London, but with no means to cross the Channel. The streets of Le Havre are dotted with such no-hope refugees, who are soon rounded up and deported right back across the border.
Prompted into action by Idrissa’s plight, Marcel hides the boy in their apartment at about the same time Arletty falls ill and is taken to the hospital. The local police inspector, Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), comes around looking for Idrissa, but everyone in the neighborhood gathers to help out, bring food and lie through their teeth as to the boy’s whereabouts.
“Le Havre” reminded me of “Welcome” (2009), another French film about refugees but one not nearly as hopeful. That was set in Calais, but the problem portrayed is the same: African refugees with their sights on London traverse hundreds of kilometers on foot to get to the French coast, only to be confronted by the choppy waters of the English Channel.
Both the French and British governments have strict policies regarding illegal immigration; the locals in “Le Havre” who try to help the refugees face hefty fines, or worse.
Marcel takes a huge risk by hiding Idrissa, but he never lets on about that or his other fear: that he’ll be arrested and unable to care for Arletty, who is by now languishing in the hospital. He gets through one day, and then he gets through the next, and hatches a plan for Idrissa to rejoin his family. “Miracles don’t happen in my neighborhood” is one of Arletty’s lines, but it seems they could happen indeed at the hands of Marcel.
Kaurismaki is now 55, and perhaps his maturity has much to do with “Le Havre” being the kindest, most gracious and idyllic of his works. It’s striking in the simplicity of its premise, and endearing with its trust in the generosity of ordinary people.
“This may be too much like a fairy tale,” Kaurismaki said in a press conference at the Cannes Film Festival. “But sometimes the world needs fairy tales.”
On the other hand, this Finnish master of understated despair has been spinning fairy tales throughout his career, his characters wandering in a forest unpolluted by the brutal logic of modern capitalism.
One scene is perhaps too romantic: a cherry tree in full bloom, its petals fluttering gently in the breeze. Sure, it’s a cliche; but in that image you sense the power and strength of a filmmaker who knows how to stand still, when all around him the world continues its mad stampede.