Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre is a charming and engrossing fable – a sort of Fractured Fairy Tale for adults – that interprets one of today’s most contentious political issues through the director’s distinctly eccentric prism. A strong Palme d’Or contender at Cannes in 2011, Le Havre relocates classic Kaurismäki production elements from Finland to a harbor town in northern France. And, not surprisingly, the veteran director finds this sleepy Britannic burg as rife with idiosyncrasy as any snowbound suburb of Helsinki. Under thick gray clouds, Kaurismäki’s diorama of quirky characters gradually meander their way to moments of epiphany and catharsis, while viewers marvel at the director’s mystical moments of compassionate humanity and playful cinematic homage.
The film takes us through a couple of weeks in the life of Marcel Marx (Andrè Wilms), an unremarkable 60-ish shoe shiner who eeks out a living at the town’s bustling train station. Each night he returns to his shabby digs and promptly hands his meager wad of Euros to his haggard wife Arletty (Katy Outinen), who swiftly hides the earnings in a repurposed crackerbox. Arletty has other secrets as well, including a mysterious ailment that will soon land her in the hospital. Meanwhile at the nearby harbor, during a routine check of cargo containers immigration officials discover a group of undocumented immigrants from The Gambia, and during the confusion a young boy named Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) escapes into the night. While a world weary detective named Monet (the great and under-appreciated Jean-Pierre Darroussin) conducts a surprisingly low key investigation, Idrissa and Marcel eventually encounter each other, and despite vast differences in age and backgrounds, discover a common thread of humanity that connects them. At great personal risk, Marcel and his neighborhood friends decide to help the boy make his way to England for a long awaited reunion with his mother.
And Le Havre represents a reunion of sorts, as Wilms first appeared as Marcel in a previous Kaurismäki French excursion, 1992’s La vie de bohème, in which he played a struggling writer in Paris. In Le Havre, Wilms makes a few oblique references to that period of his life, and the knowledge that he ended up a shoe polisher in a dreary backwater will be cold comfort to viewers who happen to be aspiring artists. Katy Outinen’s appearance is a welcome touch of classic Kaurismäki as well, as few actresses can convey permanent dazzlement with such deep stores of clarity and conviction. Outinen’s slightly unhinged characters never seem to be full time residents of reality, and her contributions to the development of Kaurismäki’s unique style cannot be overstated.
Le Harve refers to other bits of film history as well, and reaches far beyond the Kaurismäki canon. Jean-Pierre Leaud makes a memorable cameo as a grizzled denouncer of young Idrissa, much the way his iconic Antoine Dionel was denounced in The 400 Blows. Marcel and Monet share a surprising sequence with strong Casablanca overtones, while the film’s conclusion brings a fitting visual cognate to the gentle family dramas of Yasujirô Ozu. The influence of the Japanese master extends to the film’s performances, as Le Havre is a film of quiet, respectful interactions firmly rooted in dignity and decency; two elements conspicuously missing from today’s heated discussions of immigration.
Kaurismäki and his longtime collaborator cameraman Timo Salminen have always been quite clever at inserting bright colors and dramatic textures into relatively gray and flat environments, and Criterion’s hi-def burn captures these effects with great detail. Presented in the original 1.85:1 aspect, the transfer is careful to retain Kaurismäki’s characteristic documentary-inspired look, while maintaining consistency throughout Le Havre’s wide array of lighting schemes. The colorists have done an excellent job of presenting the film’s quaint and peaceful world with a unified, coherent vision that evokes the innocence of memory.
The 5.1 track is well balanced, clean and devoid of overbearing moments. Le Havre is largely a film of significant silences, and the audio thankfully retains them.
New interview with actor André Wilms
This 12 minute chat serves as a showcase for the veteran character actor’s gentle, self-effacing humor. He describes his long friendship with Kaurismäki and amusingly recounts the director’s absolute insistence on precision blocking. Wilms also discusses his preparation for the role, citing how shoe polishing is a “good skill for an actor to have.”
Footage from the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, including a press conference and a French television interview with cast and crew
The official Cannes press conference for Le Havre is included, and it’s a rather disorganized, at times downright painful, 45 minutes. At the sprawling table are Kaurismäki (who bears an uncanny resemblance to actor Alec Baldwin) Wilms, Outinen, Darroussin and a host of other principles. Despite technical issues and a slew of rambling, harebrained questions from the reporters, Kaurismäki’s dry, sardonic wit manages to cut through and carry the proceedings.
Also included is a 10 minute segment for French television in which Kaurismäki, Wilms, Outinen and Darroussin answer questions from a glib TV host. While most of ground has been covered previously, the main takeaway is the very sharp and quick mind of Kaurismäki. He is clearly a beat (in the case of his French interviewer, 2 beats) ahead of the rest of the world.
Finnish television interview with actress Kati Outinen from 2011
This edition of the Finnish TV series Strawberry Place is devoted to a thorough analysis of Outinen’s career. Particularly interesting to North American viewers will be her status as an international icon, as she has developed into a sought after film star throughout Europe and Asia. Modest and respectful of her collaborators, Outinen handles the interview with graceful good humor. The 45 minute program is enlivened by film clips and interesting reminiscences from the actress.
Concert footage of Little Bob, the musician featured in the film
Performing since 1971, Little Bob is a rock singer with roots in the Havre area. and plays a bluesy style of French punk, if one can imagine such a thing. In the film, he gives a benefit concert and this supplement offers some additional performances.
A booklet featuring an essay by film critic Michael Sicinski and a 2011 conversation between Kaurismäki and film historian Peter von Bagh
This 25 page insert features some wonderful pastel illustrations by Manuele Fior, along with production credits and notes on the transfer. Sicinsky’s essay is in depth and smoothly constructed, although he stumbles a bit with the obligatory comparisons to Bresson (academics just love to compare filmmakers to Bresson) and Fassbinder. The von Bagh interview provides some interesting insight into Kaurismäki’s thinking, in particular his aversion to disturbingly graphic images and his confused feelings about his adopted home nation, Portugal.
Le Havre may not be Kaurismäki’s most narratively complex film, but its simple riches are enhanced and augmented by the director’s characteristic minimalist formalities. His frames retain the grungy, stiff elegance of such films as Match Factory Girl and Shadows in Paradise – a style often imitated by other Scandinavian filmmakers like Roy Andersson and Bent Hamer – but here Kaurismäki employs those signature stylistics in ways that deeply steep his story in humanism. In Le Havre, an aging failed artist and a bright young boy struggling to build a future join forces and discover they can do the impossible with a little help from the better angels of human nature. Perhaps that is what makes Le Havre feel so much like a parabolic fairy tale; Kaurismäki’s opinion of mankind may ultimately be too high.