There is often cause for celebration among cinephiles with the release of a new Aki Kaurismaki film. The Finnish director and king of cinematic deadpan is greatly admired by the likes of Jim Jarmusch and has made a lasting impression on current filmmakers as diverse as Wes Anderson and his near-namesake, Swede Roy Andersson. This month sees the release of his latest feature. the Palme d’Or nominated Le Havre where the northern French port town lends itself to both setting and title.
Our poker-faced protagonist comes in the shape of Marcel Marx (Andre Wilms), a middle-to-elderly aged local, living an unremarkable humble life with doting wife Arletty (Kati Outinen). Having given up on his literary dreams he now goes around town alongside accomplice Chang as a shoe shiner and it is they who open the film. The two wait, hopelessly, for a customer at a station as the camera shows us a sea of trainers. Marcel is a shoe man in a trainer age. Belatedly he receives his first customer – a well dressed but shady looking character aware he is being tracked by equally shady looking authorities. Within seconds of departing Marcel’s stand he is gunned down, “Poor Devil” says Chang, “At least he had time to pay” comes the equally downplayed response from Marcel.
We follow Marx over a period of under a month but with which he experiences two life-turning events. His wife, caring and passive Arletty, falls critically ill and is taken to hospital. After confirming her worst fears with the Doctor she decides to hide the grimmer details of her illness to her husband, fearing the truth will ruin him and so insists he is not to return to the hospital for a fortnight. It is during this two week exile that his life is interrupted by another curious circumstance. The town is shaken by the finding of stow-aways in a dock-side container and soon plays host to a young migrant runaway. This gets comically exaggerated in the local press whose description of a dangerous escapee with possible Al Queda links differs greatly from that of the polite, teenage Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) who Marx first sees on his lunch break as Idrissa is stood waist deep in the sea 10 metres out. Marcel instantly takes it upon himself to assist the young stranger, denying a sighting to officials before leaving food and money at the site where they shared their surreal first encounter. When Idrissa returns to Marcel’s house, found by the award-winning* dog Laika (*Special Jury Prize 2011 Palme Dog) the lonely local decides to keep the refugee safe under his roof.
Between the combination of his suffering wife and newly taken in houseguest, Marcel’s popularity among the community swells. Shopkeepers and publicans who were previously tiring of his empty payment promises now all shower him with goods out of sympathy and a new found respect in equal measure. The female owner of the boulangerie gives him handfuls of baguettes while the greengrocer’s offer is undercut with dry humour “Here, I have some food going old and I thought of you”. Between them and the local landlady they go about shielding Idrissa from the attentions of the authorities while arranging his escape to London.
The Inspector, Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), brilliantly attired in classic film inspector uniform complete with black mac and trilby, is told in no uncertain terms by his superior to locate the runaway and swiftly turns his attentions to Marcel and his friends. Without altering his outwardly man-of-the-rules approach his authoritarian ways give way to a more humanist nature as his search for the boy is deliberately long-winded.
The script sizzles with trademark humour throughout often favouring the dryly absurd; Marcel attempts to fool the authorities into believing he is related to his hide-away and his Grandfather as the family albino while the Inspectors comical purchase of a pineapple not only works as a great visual gag but allows us to repeatedly hear the French for pineapple (ananas) which, as we all know, is a funny word. These drolly hilarious moments, of which there are many including nods to Tati and other greats, are accomplishly coupled with grander, more tragic and tender moments as Kaurismaki touches upon issues of migration, refugee camps and the towns they inhabit as well as loss on a personal scale. He manages to pull off both seemingly effortlessly.
Like fellow Cannes favourites the Dardenne brothers, Kaurismaki favours a familiar set-up with key collaborations with cast and crew establishing a recognisable tone and all contributing to making Le Havre, (jarring old rock concert aside) a charming gem of a film.