Friday, October 21, 2011

Aki Kaurismaki returns with "Le Havre" (review)

Regular viewers of the Funhouse TV series will be familiar with my long-standing admiration for the work of filmmaker Aki Kaurismaki. His latest feature (and second in French), Le Havre, which opens today in NYC, is a welcome blast of deadpan humor from the Finnish master of quiet, sardonic cinema.

For those unfamiliar with Kaurismaki’s work, there are a few tenets common to every film he’s made:
— deadpan humor that often ventures into openly dark comedy
— a sense of quiet that is uncommon in modern film. Kaurismaki’s working-class characters betray their sense of kinship through merely being in each other’s presence, and not talking about their troubles.
— said troubles can only be held at bay in three ways: smoking, drinking, and rock ’n’ roll
— a definite love for his characters, no matter how petty (or criminal) their behavior

Though Kaurismaki has always focused on the working class (dividing his work between quiet melodramas and the occasional Finnish “hick comedy” — rock on, Leningrad Cowboys!), he has begun to integrate contemporary social issues into his work. And thus we reach Le Havre. The film tells the story of a French shoeshine man (André Wilms) helping out an African boy (Blondin Miguel) who’s a refugee in the titular French town.

The plot certainly sounds schmaltzy, and Kaurismaki is quick to play with that aspect throughout the picture while thankfully never venturing into Spielbergian sentimentality. (The only filmmaker who has been working the same side of the street is the equally deadpan Beat Takeshi; I think here of his man-saddled-with-a-kid movie Kikujiro.)

Although the film has been likened, most likely because of its location, to the work of Marcel Carne, Jacques Becker, Rene Clair, and other French masters of poetic realism, Le Havre strikes me as Kaurismaki’s riff on Italian Neo-Realism. From our hero’s profession (Shoeshine) to his little-boy sidekick (The Bicycle Thief) to the decisive transformation from a Kaurismaki-styled “problem drama” into an outright fairy tale (Miracle in Milan), the specter of Neo-Realism permeates the proceedings — until, that is, Fifties melodrama begin to creep in. As our hero’s troubles multiply, Kaurismaki liberally layers on orchestral music that sounds as if it was lifted from a golden-age “melo,” thereby allowing him to both spoof the genre and indulge in it at the same time.

One of the joys of following Kaurismaki’s work as he creates his “small movies” (a compliment not an insult, per Godard) is seeing how he has maintained a very particular tone in his work from decade to decade (his first fiction feature, a modern adaptation of Crime and Punishment, was released in 1983). He achieves this tone with the aforementioned de-emphasis of dialogue, spare visuals (with many primary-colored interiors to offset the bleakness of the exteriors), and superb casting, drawn from a small ensemble of actors he’s been using for decades, and other performers who know how to “act Kaurismaki.”

Newcomer Miguel does a wonderful job as the African boy, while Wilms (whose face can best be described as “lived-in”) is terrific as our humble everyman hero. Several other performers steal the spotlight with their bits, but none more so than Kati Outinen (seen above with a photo of her frequent Kaurismaki costar, the late Matti Pelonpää), who had featured roles in a number of Kaurismaki’s films. She had the starring role in one of his biggest “arthouse hits,” The Match Factory Girl (1990), and was the female lead in one of my favorite AK creations, Drifting Clouds (1996) (click the link to see the film with English subtitles).

Outinen plays Wilms’ stoic wife (named Arletty, no doubt in tribute to the star of Children of Paradise), who is struck with a fatal malady but asks her doctor not to let her husband know. Since she is the one thing that Wilms truly loves (even more than smoking, drinking, and listening to rock ’n’ roll), she becomes the emotional core of the film, and her health-crisis plotline is the cornerstone of the melodramatic aspect (and the fairy-tale places it goes to — not for nothing has Kaurismaki written of his appreciation for Douglas Sirk).

Outinen’s presence is a delight — her low-key acting has grown subtler and more effective over the years — but she is not the only surprise to be found here. The versatile Jean-Pierre Darroussin (The Taste of Others, Same Old Song) has a plum role as a soft-hearted police detective, and the powerful and always unpredictable Jean-Pierre Leaud (who, besides being an icon in his own right, starred in Kaurismaki’s I Hired a Contract Killer back in 1990) plays the “villain” of the piece .

The last wonderful casting “find” is an older French rock star known as “Little Bob” (seen right, with Aki on the left), who plays himself and helps our hero out in his time of need with what the characters refer to here as one of those “trendy charity concerts” that are so popular these days. Kaurismaki loves pure rock ’n’ roll, and has done great work with Joe Strummer and, of course, The Leningrad Cowboys (all three of his cinematic forays with that band of pointy-shoed rockers are now available in a low-priced box set from Eclipse), so his reverent mythologizing of Little Bob here is nothing short of delightful.

For those who’ve been following Kaurismaki since the days of his “Proleteriat Trilogy” (also available from Eclipse/Criterion as a set), it should come as no surprise that he definitely loves his characters. His deadpan humor disguises a soft heart and an open mind, and Le Havre is perhaps his most humane and charming work since the Nineties.

Here is the trailer for the film:

Probably the best “101” for English-speaking folk who want to know more about Aki, this episode of the Jonathan Ross-hosted series For One Week Only presented a full tribute to him in 1990:

And as a closer, here’s a touching bit of quiet affection from his film Take Care of Your Scarf, Tatiana (1994), which has remained unreleased in the U.S. Kati Outinen and Matti Pelonpää are featured:

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