Le Havre (2011, Aki Kaurismäki)


Some movies, I admit, just annoy me a lot, and not necessarily for defensible or logical reasons. File Le Havre — which, forgive my ignorance, is the first Kaurismäki film I’ve seen — with Uncle Boonmee and Amélie as a widely praised film that seems almost designed to grate on me. You may not want to listen to me on this, but if you do want my opinion, there’s nothing at all about this movie that I find charming or functional or worthwhile. Amélie is a handy comparison because it shares a color palette with that film, a cheeky brightness I find almost intolerable, and there’s also that terribly artificial staging that was prominent in a lot of Wes Anderson’s post-Rushmore pre-Mr. Fox films, whereby characters seem to be standing awkwardly in space before the action of a given shot occurs, or wherein their spatial relationships or movements seem terribly artificial and overly mannered. I get that this is deliberate, but one person’s “quirk” is another person’s simple “bad direction,” and this obliterated the appeal of the performances for me. I couldn’t believe a single thing that happened.

The story has shades of a political message, but also comes across as a racially condescending limousine-liberal stunt in the vein of Slumdog Millionaire. It involves the life of a shoe shiner (André Wilms) who doesn’t know his wife (Kati Outinen) is dying (for some reason), who takes it upon himself to care for a runaway African immigrant who stowed away in Le Havre on his way to London. The film concentrates on the way that the tight-knit community comes together to ensure that the boy, Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), is safely dispatched to the UK without interference from immigration authorities. It’s all very cute, relaxed, minor and inconsequential, and it tells us all this so casually it feels as if it just happens to capture a story being told in progress, and none too elegantly.

Again, you may find infinite delight and sweetness in the film’s undeniable good nature, in the way it hangs back politely and rambles indulgently with scenes about local musician Little Bob and the charity concert he gives to get Idrissa home, occasion for what amounts to a Little Bob concert film wedged into the narrative. Kaurismäki intends less to tell a story than to put a place and a lifestyle on film, and I have little doubt he captures the mood, but there’s just such a ring of cutesiness about the enterprise, I can’t imagine it’s really got the note of truth and reality it shoots for.

Somehow I’m more bothered than anything by the absence of real conflict here; though there’s adversity and difficulty along the way, the film is really about things working out for no particular reason. His wife turns out fine, and there’s not any real struggle or detail about it. She’s just, you know, okay, and it’s a miracle. They’ve never seen anything like it before. I feel guilty complaining about a film that’s about fundamental good nature in people and intends to do nothing more than to express that, but there just isn’t much that’s terribly interesting about good things happening to good people, at least not in this hyper-stylized, elevated world that just seems too bright and plastic to exist.

The casting is excellent; both Wilms and Outinen have beautifully expressive faces that could tell the story with no assistance, which is all the more disappointing since Kaurismäki keeps making them do things like turn their heads at precise angles and look in certain directions at very specific times to denote story points and sell his unrelentingly quiet, unemotive regime. I believe comedies should be low-key and intelligent, but this is so low-key it feels as if there’s nothing there, and the combination of this trait with the movie’s visual garishness is just jarring. But I have a feeling you shouldn’t take my word for it on this one.

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