I recently watched Aki Kaurismäki’s excellent “Proletariat Trilogy” in preparation for Cannes, and the director’s incredible feel for narrative gaps, emotional POV’s, and decisive pacing made me realize there was a whole other dimension to his work than the deadpan surface. With this in mind, Kaurismäki’s newest film, Le Havre, seems a dim reflection of more substantial earlier work, another slow swing at an already exploded piñata. Set in the port district of Le Havre in Normandy, France, Kaurismäki’s film examines the daily routine of Marcel Marx (André Wilms), an elderly ex-writer who now shines shoes to get by. His wife, Arletty (Kati Outinen), exists in a suspended state, keeling over from intense stomach pain only after cooking Marcel dinner. The banality of Kaurismäki’s comedy is readily apparent as Arletty watches from afar as Marcel eat alone.
Immigration politics are at the forefront of Le Havre: a Vietnamese immigrant (Quoc Dung Nguyen) also shines shoes, television and radio broadcasts flood the frame with the sound and fury of angry protests, and a young boy named Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) smuggled into France from Africa becomes the central symbol. While Kaurismäki retains the sense of color, shadow, and tone that infuses his previous work, there seems to be a turn toward overt sentimentality in Le Havre. The relationship between Marcel and Idrissa develops from mutual compassion, but the emotional connection unfolds in familiarly broad strokes. Idrissa discovers an American rock record, Marcel travels out of town to locate the boy’s grandfather, and every character partakes in a final ruse alluding to the unification of many cultures. Everything is so on the nose, except when Kaurismäki spends lengthy amounts of time on strangely tangential moments in the story. The multiple-minute sequence of a charity rock concert is indicative of Kaurismäki’s meandering attention span.
That’s not to say Le Havre isn’t sweet, relevant, and occasionally moving. But the unadulterated sameness of the film reveals a talented director recycling the same ideas without evolving beyond the expected. There’s a lackadaisical pacing to the entire narrative that feels foreign to Kaurismäki, diminishing the social issues he genuinely wants to address. Yet he can never merge style with theme in fresh ways. At one point in the film, Marcel says to Idrissa, “The jar returns to the well until it breaks.” With Le Havre, you can say the exact same thing about Kaurismäki the auteur. His rock n’ roll vinyl is stuck on repeat.
Instead of a Christ figure, Bruno Dumont’s new film, Hors Satan, introduces a Devil savior as its central protagonist, an unsettling idea to say the least. The nameless man (David Dewaele) lives deep in the desolate countryside, living off handouts and sleeping next to a stone structure. Dumont spends the entire film stalking him with relentless precision. Often joined by a shorthaired teenage girl (Alexandra Lematre) during these long menacing strolls, there’s an immediate sense each step takes them closer into a dark moral abyss. A shocking murder and the numbing aftermath only confirms our suspicions that the drifter is some kind of satanic messenger, picking and choosing who deserves salvation and who deserves violent death. The obscure reasoning behind Dumont’s moralizing narrative decisions is the film’s most glaring failure. Is there a method to his madness?
Dumont extends the constricting trajectory of Hors Satan for an uncomfortable amount of time, drifting through this physically and emotionally barren space in long tracking shots. Sound is almost nonexistence, except for occasional hum of ambient tone. After a while, it’s not entirely clear if we are already in a specific version of hell: a panoramic fire engulfing a hill, acts of supposed “resurrection,” and a cryptic walk across a bisected pond. Symbolism and allegory are plot points in Hors Satan, yet the ideas behind these moments are, like the putrid pond that makes several appearances, consistently muddled. Instead of giving the viewer a glimmer of humanity to latch onto, Dumont deals in a cold-shoulder cinema that’s both pressurized and limited, relentless, and distant. Hors Satan shoves these troublesome motifs down our throat until there’s no more room to breath. He demands sympathy for the devil without thinking why.
Even worse than Dumont’s proselytizing Sermon on the Mount is Alain Cavalier’s unbearable lightness of being talky in his faux-documentary Pater. Cavalier and Vincent Lindon get all meta as they construct an absurd political narrative where they are elected president and prime minister of France, respectively. Paradox and contradiction become supporting characters in this pretentious landslide of irony. The endless improvisation between the actors has a few funny moments, but most of the critical zingers seem prepared for the home crowd. The mainly French audience lapped this rubbish up. And what is it with filmmakers shooting self-aware films like this on the worst possible DV camera available? (Kim Ki-duk please stand up!) Is blown-out lighting and bleached yellows a new cinematic fashion trend? Despite the amateurish look, the self-congratulation on display is truly amazing. With Pater, Cavalier and Linden smugly deconstruct the arrogance of French politics by reveling in the equally impressive arrogance of French stardom. Don’t they know two wrongs don’t make a right in any language? Au revoir nuance.