The most difficult part of my European cinema project has not been actually tracking down some of these films, but rather choosing which films to actually watch. Some countries have such diverse and interesting cinematic histories, and to just choose one film to represent that country is entirely impossible (which is why I am not limiting it to only one film per country, but one film is the minimum requirement). The most exciting part of this project is not the fact that I get to watch films from France, Italy and Germany, but rather that I get to explore the films of countries like Iceland, Kazakhstan and Finland, amongst others. Finland was of particular interest, because I knew exactly where to start – Finnish cinema is great, but it begins and ends with one man – Aki Kaurismäki, who is one of the most interesting directors working today. The difficulty was choosing which film of his to take the plunge with – ultimately, I decided to go for one of his most well-known and best-loved films, Le Havre (and also, his most recent narrative feature film).
The film is set in the French port city of Le Havre, where aging shoeshiner and general good-guy Marcel Marx (André Wilms) makes his living shining the shoes of the city’s elite. He and his wife Arletty (Kati Outinen) live a simple but slightly sad life – he is a good man, but she is an even more loyal and loving wife, and when she is diagnosed with terminal cancer, she doesn’t even want her husband to know. This is helpful, as Marcel has his own problems – a young refugee from Africa, Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) has chosen Marcel as his caretaker, and Marcel, being the humble humanitarian he is, wants to help the boy by reuniting him with his family, but knows that it is dangerous for him to be seen with the child, for both people involved. He hatches a plan to get Idrissa to his mother in London, all the while being pursued by the cynical and comical police inspector Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), who goes to any lengths to catch this child and indict the elderly man for whatever reason.
Le Havre is an utterly gorgeous film – Kaurismäki chose perhaps the very best place in Europe to set this film – so many films set in France find themselves being mainly set around Paris, and while Paris is an utterly beautiful city, France is a country with a lot of personality all around, and perhaps the fact that this film is set in a more sedate, calm area of France is why I chose it. The setting itself is awe-inspiring – the simplicity is one of the most beautiful things about Le Havre, and the film reflects it perfectly. Quaint and lovely, it is the perfect setting for this delightful and quirky little story about friendship and community. Despite being set in a small French port, it still feels like every little community around the world – the sense of family and neighbourly love is a universal theme, and something Kaurismäki reflects very well in Le Havre. If there is one thing I took away from this film, it is the unbelievable amount of detail Kaurismäki puts into showing true community values, and the fact that there are people out there that will help you, based only on the simple criteria that life is hard, and we are all in this game together, and none of us are going to get out of it alive.
André Wilms is wonderful as Marcel Marx, and his empathetic and lovely performance is a refreshing change from the normally sleazy and questionably immoral characters that sometimes dominate these kinds of films – Marcel is a decent, hardworking man, and he does his best with the hopes that he will be rewarded with eternal peace. Wilms isn’t very showy, nor does he have any heavily dramatic moments that he has to deal with. He simply gives a sweet and nuanced performance of a genuinely good guy. The rest of the cast is also good – particularly Kati Outinen, who has a strangely mystical quality about her and her performance is wonderfully subtle and delicate. I wish Blondin Miguel had been given more to do, as he is purely just there as the main subject of the film without doing much. Jean-Pierre Darroussin is hilarious, and plays a character that is truly the contemporary embodiment of Peter Sellers’ Chief Inspector Jacques Clouseau. He is easily the best part of the film, and his hilarious performance is a delight to watch.
The cinematic influences on Le Havre are very clear – it often feels out of place in the contemporary cinematic landscape – it has slight elements of film noir, along with heavy elements of older French comedies, such as that of Jacques Tati. It has an unbelievably sweet streak running through it, and the fact that it is so gorgeously filmed, with unconventional cinematography and unbelievably idiosyncratic production design, one would not be blamed for thinking it seems misplaced in the 21st century. It is worth it purely because of the dazzling visuals and unbelievable heart that Kaurismäki placed into this film.
Le Havre is a lovely film. It has so much heart and soul, and it has enough charm to thaw out the coldest hearts. It is an ultimate feel-good film, and if anything, it proves that Aki Kaurismäki is an absolute master. It is a worthwhile experience, and it is just a delightful little comedy that may sometimes be a bit too rich for one’s taste, but is ultimately rewarding, and you’ll grin throughout the entire movie. A wonderful little film.