Back in May, when my Slant colleague Glenn Heath Jr. saw Aki Kaurismäki’s latest film, Le Havre, at Cannes, he called it “a dim reflection of more substantial earlier work” and that, while it certainly is “sweet, relevant, and occasionally moving,” it “reveals a talented director recycling the same ideas without evolving beyond the expected.” As someone who went into Le Havre not having seen any of Kaurismäki’s work, though, it played differently—and more positively—to me. If this film is indeed “once more around the block” for this director, then allow me to pool some general impressions I get from this initial encounter with Kaurismäki’s brand of working-class humor.
Visually speaking, this is a very “blue” movie—as in, blue-ish shades seem to dominate shots of both interiors and exteriors (courtesy of cinematographer Timo Salminen). This is especially apparent during the nighttime scenes, of which there are many in this film. The last time I saw nighttime scenes captured with such evocative attention to blue tones was with Barry Sonnenfeld’s cinematography for the Coens’ Blood Simple, but the images in that film were meant to be menacing, whereas the visuals in Le Havre come off as an oddball mix of realism and whimsy.
Another notable visual quality I note about Kaurismäki’s film is the self-consciously stagy lighting—with pools of light thrown onto certain parts of a frame, suggesting a spotlight during a theatrical production—and the deliberately artificial quality of the sets. Outside of airy outdoor footage taken in and around the French harbor town after which the film is named, much of the film takes place in neighborhood residences that feel old-world in contrast to the very modern, industrial settings in which Marcel Marx (André Wilms) and African refugee boy Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), among others, struggle to make their living and realize their dreams.
Working-class lives seem to be Kaurismäki’s main concern, certainly judging by the fact that among his previous films are three works that constitute what is popularly known as his “Proletarian Trilogy” (Shadows in Paradise, Ariel, and The Match Factory Girl). But this isn’t the kind of wallow in miserablism that has become trendy in recent years, especially in American indies like Ballast, Frozen River, and Precious. Kaurismäki instead mines lower-class struggles for deadpan comedy, laced with warm-hearted affection for his characters and refusing to make them mere objects of pity or condescension. Even the one potential villain of the film—a dogged cop pursuing Idrissa—shows signs of humanity underneath his methodical exterior.
In Le Havre, Kaurismäki expands his thematic palette to include the plight of refugees trying to sneak their way into the European Union from third-world countries. Idrissa is one such refugee, and it’s by sheer coincidence that he ends up in Marcel Marx’s life, giving the former writer/current shoe-shiner a newfound purpose in his otherwise humdrum life as he, with the help of his fellow villagers, tries to help the boy reunite with his mother in England. On the surface, this sounds like yet another “white man’s burden” narrative in which a black character needs the help of whites—but Idrissa turns out to be at least self-sufficient enough to try a hand at shoe-shining on his own (at least, until he’s caught by an unnamed character played by legendary French actor Jean-Pierre Léaud), suggesting that he can certainly take care of himself, whether or not he gets Marcel’s help.
Thankfully, Kaurismäki’s social concerns don’t overwhelm the playfulness at the heart of Le Havre. This playfulness is evident in numerous film and political references thrown into the film: Marcel Marx’s name; the fact that his wife is named Arletty, after the French actress/star best known for playing Garance the temptress in Children of Paradise; Kafka read to someone as a bedtime story; Léaud, most famous as the restless Antoine Doinel in The 400 Blows, fingering the equally restless Idrissa; and so on. It also manifests itself in its seemingly ramshackle narrative, which is generous enough, for instance, to take time out of its narrative’s headlong rush for an extended concert sequence—a “trendy charity concert” to help raise money for Idrissa’s voyage to England—with aging French pop singer Little Bob rocking out.
Le Havre may be mild stuff overall, but it’s pleasant enough, amusing and humane in good measure. For me, in other words, it’s a promising initial encounter with Kaurismäki’s distinctive world.
The New York Film Festival runs from September 30—October 16.
This article was originally published on The House Next Door.