Audiences may not readily cue in to the comic aspects of Kaurismäki's films, definitely not when you scan the synopses: a miner struggles to survive after the mine closes and his father commits suicide (Ariel, 1988); a man severely injured after a beating loses his memory and starts his life over among the poor of Helsinki (The Man Without a Past, 2002); and the movie at hand, Le Havre, about a man who conspires with his neighbors to hide and protect an African boy illegally smuggled into France, all the while dealing with his seriously ill wife. None of them are by any means knee-slappers. If you're looking for the more blatant comedy in his work, better to start with Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989) or its sequel, Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses (1994), about a fictional Russian rock band seeking fame in the U.S., which inspired the formation of a real band by the same name. And even here, there's a good degree of that Finnish dark humor: The night before departing for New York, one of the band members freezes to death while practicing outside, but his bandmates take him along on the trip anyway!
Like many of the director's works, Le Havre looks at the lives of societal misfits and people whose circumstances border on the desperate, yet there is a sublime degree of optimism and lightness, even at the darkest moments, and the gentle humor comes from the interplay of the eccentric characters who make up the offbeat community the young boy suddenly finds himself enfolded by. As A.O. Scott's review in the New York Times noted, "Figuring that we already know something about how harsh life can be, he reminds us of its modest charms and fleeting beauties, and of how easy it is, in the face of cruelty, to behave decently." Kaurismäki's faith in the human spirit, the self-described way he takes "refuge" in optimism when he is at his most pessimistic, makes this one his most pleasing and accessible pictures.
The idea for the story came about three years before production began. Kaurismäki spent some time trying to decide on a setting, initially considering somewhere on the Mediterranean coast, then driving "the whole seacoast from Genoa to Holland," he told an interviewer, before settling on the northern French port, which he describes as "the city of blues and soul and rock 'n' roll." Filming took place in various locations around the city between March and May 2010. Going with his notion of the city as the country's musical soul, Kaurismäki cast local singing legend Little Bob (Italian-born Roberto Piazza) as more or less himself, contributing a number of songs to the eclectic soundtrack. "Le Havre is the Memphis, Tennessee of France and Little Bob is the Elvis of this Kingdom, as long as Johnny Hallyday stays in Paris (and even then it would be a nice fight)," Kaurismäki told interviewer Christine Masson .
Although he never attended film school, Kaurismäki's movies are often full of subtle cinematic allusions, not as trivia showcases but to add texture, nuance and homage. Characters in this story bear the names Marx, Monet, and Arletty (France's most famous film actress of the 1930s and 40s). In a bit of self-reference, the character Marcel Marx (a likely reference to director Marcel Carné, to whom Kaurismäki's work has been compared) is played by André Wilms, who has appeared in five of Kaurismäki's films and played a character of the same name in La vie de bohème (1992), Kaurismäki's Paris-set modern take on the La bohème tale of opera fame. In Le Havre, the character talks about having once lived the bohemian life of an author in Paris. Even the dog in this picture, Laika, appeared in the earlier Paris film. Laika was the name of the unfortunate Moscow street dog sent into space by the Soviets in 1957, another interesting twist, in that Kaurismäki's production company is called Sputnik. Laika, by the way, received a special jury prize from the Palm Dog jury at Cannes, the second given to a canine in a Kaurismäki film, after Tähti (an homage to French filmmaker Jacques Tati?) in The Man Without a Past.
The cast also includes names and faces familiar to any student of French cinema, including Jean-Pierre Léaud (Truffaut's frequent muse), familiar comic actor Pierre Etaix (director of several well-received comedies in the 1960s and 70s), and Luce Vigo (daughter of Jean Vigo, director of L'Atlalante, 1934). The film won top awards at the Chicago, Munich, Reykjavik, and Cannes film festivals, and was nominated for three César's (the French equivalent of the U.S. Academy Award) for Best Picture, Director, and Production Design. It was also Finland's Oscar entry for the Best Foreign Language Film but failed to get a nomination, perhaps a reaction to Kaurismäki's twice boycotting the awards in protest of U.S. foreign policy.
Director: Aki Kaurismäki
Producer: Hanna Hemilä, Aki Kaurismäki
Screenplay: Aki Kaurismäki
Cinematography: Timo Salminen
Editing: Timo Linnasalo Production Design: Wouter Zoon
Cast: Andre Wilms (Marcel Marx), Kati Outinen (Arletty), Jean-Pierre Darroussin (Monet), Blondin Miguel (Idrissa), Elina Salo (Claire), Evelyne Didi (Yvette)
By Rob Nixon