It’s hard to say what Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki is better known for: his dry humour and well revered films, or his frequent refusal to attend their screenings. An ardent protestor of everything from U.S. foreign policy to war in general, Kaurismaki has carved a name for himself as a director who knows how to put together a good film, and is also not afraid to use it as a means of boycotting the unjust. This is why watching Kaurismaki’s Le Havre (2011), is so fascinating, as the director presents the elegant beauty of this small French town, located in the Haute-Normandy region of France, as the backdrop for a tale that takes quite classic approach to modern issues.
Le Havre tells the story of Marcel Marx (Andrè Wilms), a loveable old man who makes a living supporting both he and his aged wife Arletty (Kati Outinen) by shoe-shining in the streets of Le Havre. Marx’s life is put into perspective when his wife becomes very ill, and during her time spent in the hospital, Marx makes the risqué decision to house a young African refugee boy who is being hounded by Le Havre’s immigrant task force. Kaurismaki tells this story in a style that stands in juxtaposition to much of what is seen in modern filmmaking today. The slower pace and classic film techniques, such as the brilliantly employed shot-reverse-shot scenes which tend to take particular president at the beginning of the film, become a central source of definition for his style. By including these older techniques in Le Havre, Kaurismaki aligns his film with more traditional approaches similar to well known French film predecessors like Robert Bresson, whose pictures are renowned for their leisurely pace as well. Right away, it is Le Havre’s unhurriedness that makes us aware that Kaurismaki is not concerned with faster and overly complex plot systems that shy away from storytelling. Instead this film’s very slowness works much like many of the director’s protests: to emphasize on the power of community and support that he feels still exists in the world today.
In Le Havre, Marx playfully glances at the people who pay him no attention while they pass by his shoe-shine station on a subway platform, most of who wear sneakers and thus altogether negate Marx’s shining service. Marx is an outdated man, just like his trade, and soon as the other members of Marx’s neighbourhood are shown, it appears that in actuality everyone in Le Havre is old, except for one. This would be the refugee boy, Idrissa, portrayed by newcomer Blondin Miguel, who gives a note worthy and mature performance. In order to help Idrissa, it is first Marx who solely struggles against time, monetary restrictions, and the menacing authorities. But as the film progresses and the community who surround both Marx and the boy work to better Idrissa’s situation, this strong sense of communal pride shines through Kaurismaki’s bleak humour. Kaurismaki has established himself as a filmmaker who does things differently and Le Havre is a worthwhile testament to both his efforts and his belief that people are still capable of caring about each other.