Thursday, 5 April 2012

GFT programme note: Le Havre

Out tomorrow, Le Havre is rather good indeed...


‘The European cinema has not much addressed the continuously worsening financial, political, and above all, moral crisis that has led to the ever-unsolved question of refugees,’ writes Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki in Le Havre’s press kit, identifying the key impetus behind the film’s plot: a young African immigrant, hiding from the authorities in the titular port town. ‘I have no answer to this problem,’ Kaurismäki continues, ‘but I still wanted to deal with the matter, in this anyhow unrealistic film.’[1] While there are some notable, refugee-focussed narratives to be found amongst recent festival fare – for example, Low Life (Nicholas Klotz, 2011), well-received in London last year; or Terraferma (Emanuele Crialese, 2011), which screened at the GFF in February – Kaurismäki’s charge that European filmmakers have under-represented the issues attendant to global migration seems a fair one. He evidently considers it fertile subject matter: according to several recent interviews (never, it must be said, an entirely reliable source of information given his well-documented tendency to disdainfully and self-deprecatingly dance around questions, but interesting nonetheless), Le Havre will ultimately become the first in a ‘Harbour Town Trilogy’, with the Galician town of Vigo to host the second entry, and an unconfirmed location in Germany the third.[2] Le Havre’s title is interesting in this regard, both specific (situating events in the Normandy-region city of the same name), but also abstractly evocative of the story’s themes (the city’s name literally translates as ‘the harbour’).

Despite the opening quotation’s polemical edge, the appended caveat is important: for all its supposed social-realist roots, Le Havre is a deliberate, confessed fantasy. Early on, when police open a shipping container in which dozens of men, women and children have been hiding during their lengthy passage to Europe, the contents are less grim than might be expected. ‘There’s a serious problem with immigrants suffering in forgotten containers,’ notes Kaurismäki in interview with Indiewire. ‘They can die there. [But] I didn’t want to face that problem because I was making an uplifting film.’[3] He echoes the point in discussion with Film Comment, where he further explains the decision to present the stowaways in a stoic, rather than pitiful or tragic light, concluding ‘to hell with realism.’[4] This defiance informs the film through to its final moments, in which not one, but two happy endings are delivered in quick succession, with increasing disregard for the laws of probability. ‘The whole refugee business is a miserable thing with too many sad endings in real life,’ Kaurismäki argues. ‘So a fiction film dealing with that needs a minimum of two happy endings to make some kind of balance.’[5] The ‘ever-unsolved question of refugees’ is thereby offered a solution, albeit a highly implausible one.

To return again to the opening statement, while Kaurismäki’s language frames immigration in very contemporary terms (‘continuously-worsening’, ‘ever-unsolved’), Le Havre is old-fashioned in more ways than one. Smoking bans have yet to intrude upon the cafés and bars of Kaurismäki’s France, while the central neighbourhood, populated by grocers and shoe-shines, is stylishly timeless. The name of central character Marcel (André Wilms, reprising a role first played in 1992’s La Vie de Bohème) self-consciously references director Carné, while that of Arletty (Kati Outinen) echoes Carné’s regular star of the same name. Towards the end, ‘a trendy charity concert’ features prominently (itself a decidedly dated form of Western redress to third-world problems), headlined by veteran rock act Little Bob; elsewhere, the soundtrack features Blind Willie McTell (played on crackly vinyl, no less) and sixties act The Renegades, whose Ventures-style surf-rock opens and closes the film. The latter’s music has featured in a number of other Kaurismäki films, most notably Take Care of Your Scarf, Tatiana (1994), but their prominence in this context is interesting in another sense: though the members were all originally from the UK, The Renegades formed and found success in their adopted home of Finland, making them, too, immigrants of a multicultural Europe. Incidentally, the same might be said of Kaurismäki himself – in addition to filming Le Havre in France and plotting continuations elsewhere in the continent, the Finn has called Portugal home for six months of every year since the late eighties.

Leaving biography aside, Le Havre evidences many of Kaurismäki’s long-ingrained stylistic trademarks: dialogue is droll and deadpan (‘Luckily he had time to pay’ shrugs Marcel when a man is gunned down, off-screen, moments after receiving a shoe-shine); characters are often frozen in elegantly drab tableaux, while the lightly comic tone is offset by moments of melodrama. Its consistency extends to familiar cast members (Outinen in her ninth role for the director; Wilms in his fourth), and even a canine acting dynasty, with Laika the fifth generation of Kaurismäki family dog to appear on-screen (where her relative Tähti’s turn in The Man without a Past won 2002’s Palm Dog, Laika had to make do with a special Jury Prize at last year’s Cannes, after The Artist’s Uggie scooped the top accolade). True to its director’s word, Le Havre offers no answers to the complicated issues that inform its plot, but it is arguably cinema itself – particularly his own, but that of others also – that inspires and informs Kaurismäki’s imagination, more so than politics. While aforementioned influence Marcel Carné previously used Le Havre as a setting for 1938’s Le Quai des Brumes, in Kaurismaki’s hands, this ‘port of shadows’ becomes a colourful stage, where neither geopolitics nor medical science encroach upon its inherent, flagrantly unrealistic, optimism.

Dr Christopher Buckle
Researcher and Journalist
March 2012

[1] Aki Kaurismaki, ‘Director’s Words’, accessed 3 April 2012 at

[2] Kevin Jagernauth, ‘Aki Kaurismaki’s ‘Le Havre’ the First of a Trilogy, Director Plans Future Entries in Spain and Germany’, accessed

[3] Eric Kohn, ‘Le Havre Director Aki Kaurismäki: “I’m not interested in the upper class”’, accessed 3 April, 2012 at

[4] Peter von Bagh, ‘Aki Kaurismäki: The Uncut Interview’, accessed 3 April 2012,

[5] Damon Smith, ‘Aki Kaurismäki, Le Havre’, accessed 16 March, 2012,

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