A watchman strolling late one night on the wharves of the French port of Le Havre raps his stick on the side of a container, and hears the faint cry of a baby. An official arrives with a clipboard: the container is in transit from Gabon to London, but due to a computer error in Paris, it’s been on this wharf for days. If they have oxygen, if they have water … Police with machine guns pour out of vans. An ambulance pulls up. The container doors swing open.
Dozens of Africans, men, women and children, sit inside, completely still. They gaze out at the police and shipping workers, who return their stare. No one speaks or moves. The hypnotised mutual gaze goes on and on, and in its silence swells the awful mystery of the way the world is.
When the paramedics hustle in, a young boy darts out through the open door and escapes along the narrow gap between the containers. One cop raises his gun. Another stops him: “Are you mad? He’s only a kid!”
Marcel Marx (André Wilms), the character through whom we follow the fortunes of the runaway boy, is a clapped-out, educated old bohemian who makes a meagre living on the street as a shoeshine man. He and his middle-aged wife Arletty (Kati Outinen) live down an alley in a tiny flat. She is wiry, but tremulous from some unexplained, long-ago damage. She pins her hair back with girlish clips, and speaks French with a choking Finnish accent. At home in their kitchen they behave with a formal, tender reserve, as if they can’t believe their luck in having found one other.
Arletty goes to the doctor about a pain. It’s cancer, terminal – “So there’s no hope?” “There are often miracles,” says the tired doctor. “Not in my part of town,” replies Arletty. To spare Marcel, when he turns up at the hospital, she tells him that the last-ditch treatments she’s been offered will cure her, but orders him not to visit her again till they’re over; it will upset her equilibrium. “Come back in two weeks,” she says, “and bring my yellow dress, the one I wore in La Rochelle, remember?” They lower their eyes; their faces soften. This is our sole glimpse into their past.
So when the African boy, Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), takes shelter in Marcel’s shed and lies shivering beside the dog, he has come to the right place. Banished from the presence of his wife, Marcel resolves to get the boy to his mother in London. He will have to raise 3000 euros – an enormous sum – to smuggle Idrissa across the Channel in a fishing boat.
As Marcel trudges in his grubby suede jacket through the streets and bars of Le Havre, in and out of blighted refugee encampments, Arab cafes and government offices, we learn that this gaunt has-been with his slicked-back hair and drinking habit, his speech studded with rhetorical flourishes and delicate gradations of address, is embedded in a complex web of associations at the lowest level of society. Down here, everyone knows everyone. There are people he can call upon for help.
In this story of escape and hunt, the Finnish director and screenwriter Aki Kaurismäki hits a contemporary realist and political nerve; yet he keeps the tale within his own bizarrely individual imaginative world. Half an hour into Le Havre my companion, who like me had never seen a Kaurismäki film before, said in a baffled tone, “These people look as if they’ve all had a stroke.” I was offended on the movie’s behalf, but later, when I rushed out and rented Juha, Leningrad Cowboys Go America, The Man Without a Past and Drifting Clouds, I saw she had a point.
This director’s world is one of motionless faces, still tableaux, long silences. His camera, too, is mostly still, and he writes only the barest of dialogue – simple and declarative, uttered by people facing each other in static head-and-shoulder shots. People reel under life’s blows, but rarely cry. A handshake is more intimate than a kiss.
Kaurismäki likes to contemplate objects left behind by people who have just walked away: a row of empty shot glasses on a bar; an ashtray above which a cloud of smoke disperses. Rust is important to him, also thin sheets and cheap curtains, threadbare blankets, shabby things worn out, like his characters, in the service of survival. His movies are economical, around 90 minutes and with no fat on them, and, in an unnerving way, very funny.
He bases his casting every time on a superb central ensemble: actors of mature years who aren’t trying to hide it, battered and greasy-haired and lined, deadpan and yet so poignantly expressive that within the tight constraints of his style they can throw us into a fit of laughter (or tears) just by standing speechless with their hands hanging at their sides.
The effect of this stripped-back style, as in all minimalist art that’s any good, is to draw us, and our own experience of the world, into its texture. Our intelligence is assumed. Nothing is explained and we are not instructed how to feel.
Music means a lot to Kaurismäki and his use of it is unsettling. He doesn’t cue our emotions with it, or care about seamlessness. Sometimes it will overlap the edges of a scene and hang loose. An orchestral passage, a burst of tango, or a sudden accordion will be cut off without warning, leaving us floating in a strangely bracing atmosphere of stoicism.
Colour in his world possesses great emotional power. Le Havre is soaked in a mysteriously moving variety of blues. When man, boy and dog rest together in the concrete yard, their quiet mood seems to issue from the colour of the peeling window frame behind them, a dry, dusty blue that fades towards grey. Idrissa is wearing a buttercup yellow jumper. The dog’s head and Marcel’s jacket are comfort-brown. But almost obscured in the bottom corner of the shot stands a small enamel bowl that throbs with a heart-breaking cherry red.
Perhaps I should have mentioned that in the opening minutes of Le Havre a man is shot at a railway station. The scene administers a weirdly comic jolt. Violence is always handled by Kaurismäki with discretion. In fact, despite the low-rent lives his characters lead, there is surprisingly little of it in his work, and when it does happen, it is usually off camera, though sometimes within earshot. The other people in the scene share the director’s reluctance to engage with it: they turn into rigid bystanders, shoulders back, eyes on the ground, waiting for it to be over. If a drunk crashes face-down on the floor, it’s his own business, though eventually someone will turn him over and drag him away; he has got drunk for a very good reason, and no one is going to judge him for it.
When the police ransack Marcel’s flat in search of the fugitive, they shove him against a wall and rush past him into the kitchen. We hear bottles smashing, but Kaurismäki’s only concession to the destruction is to pan politely to the open window, focus on the concrete wall outside, then slightly tilt the camera clockwise and hold it steady. That tipped window frame conveys all the agitation we need.
The lost boy’s plight acts on everyone around him. People come up with clever ideas. A feuding couple reunites. A black-suited detective surprises himself. Beset by obstacles to his planned rock’n’roll fundraiser, Marcel gloomily polishes the shoes of two priests who, ignoring the man on his knees, are smoking and philosophising outside the cathedral. “The gates of heaven,” declares one of them, “will open for the innocent.” There is no hint of anything religious in Kaurismäki’s movies (unless you count the way the thoughtful child folds back his sheet in the morning, as neatly as a novice or a monk); yet he seems to have an unfashionable faith in the possibility of redemption, at the point where vast political dramas touch on ordinary lives, no matter how impoverished or weary.
The fate of Idrissa may be guessed. As for Arletty and Marcel – at the very last minute, Kaurismäki gives the plot a cunning twist, and with a gasp we realise that we’ve been carried along unawares by a wildly audacious moral proposition. In its abruptness, its authority and its daring sweetness, it’s as challenging as a parable, and in this harsh world, twice as outrageous.
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