It’s fairly obvious from the get-go where Aki Kaurismaki’s new film Le Havre (opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas this Friday) is going — viewers conversant in the language of cinema will probably divine its narrative direction before the end of the second reel. That doesn’t mean the journey isn’t worth taking, however: for all its predictability, Kaurismaki’s latest feature is a near flawless example of how to tell a story on film.
Marcel Marx (Andre Wilm) and wife Arletty (Kaurismaki regular Kati Outinen) are residents of the titular port city. Marcel ekes out a living shining shoes; Arletty feeds the two of them on onions and purloined baguettes. So inured to life’s hardships is Marcel that even the death of a customer barely fazes him: as he drily points out, “at least he had time to pay” before getting hit by a car.
Meanwhile, a night watchman patrolling the docks is alerted to the presence of a crying child in a shipping container. The police open the container, revealing within more than a dozen Gabonese immigrants — including a boy named Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) who escapes the police before they can slap the cuffs on him.
Inevitably, Marcel and Idrissa meet when the older man settles down to eat his lunch quayside. Their conversation is interrupted by trench-coat-clad Inspector Monet (Jean Pierre Darroussin, looking and sounding remarkably like James Mason), who wants to know if Marcel has seen a young black boy in the neighborhood. Marcel, of course, says no.
Idrissa is travelling to join his mother in London, where she works in an East End laundry. Marcel, no fan of authority, determines to help him get there, but needs money to buy his new friend passage across the channel. Will his wild scheme — putting on a rock and roll fundraiser — succeed, or will Monet get his hands on Idrissa first?
A typical Kaurismaki shaggy dog tale — it even features a shaggy dog named Laika — Le Havre is proof that the Finnish director remains as committed to the outsider as he was over 20 years ago, when his fishes-out-of-water rock comedy Leningrad Cowboys Go America made waves. It’s also a visual feast, using a color scheme — a blend of turquoise, deep blue, and brown — that infuses the film with a unique, almost timeless quality.
Music remains a key component of Kaurismaki’s storytelling. In addition to a generous selection of (stereo?) typically French accordion tunes, Le Havre is bookended by ‘Matelot’, an amazing cut by ‘60s British expats The Renegades, who couldn’t earn a farthing at home but became superstars in Finland. If you’re a fan of contemporary Sheffield crooner Richard Hawley, you’ll love ‘em.
Finally, a special appearance by diminutive Gallic rocker Little Bob (who headlines Marcel’s concert) offers proof that even the French can occasionally rock out with the best of them.
Fancy a fish lollipop? Then check out El Bulli, a documentary about the legendary (though recently shuttered) Spanish restaurant of the same name. The film is also opening this weekend at the Shattuck. This is one for the hardcore foodies among you, with most of the film focusing on the nuts and bolt of food preparation. I found it all a bit boring, but I’m certain many Berkeleyside readers will consider it quite tasty indeed.
Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.
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