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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: Le Havre



LE HAVRE (Four Stars)

France/Finland: Aki Kaurismaki, 2011 (Criterion Collection)

The wondrously ragtag people of Le HavreAki Kaurismaki’s bluesy neo-realist fairytale of a film about class solidarity, kindness  and international brotherhood in the Normandy port city of the title, are  a community of grand allusions, walking. And the film, both melancholy and sweet, is their dreamy, broken boulevard of references.

It’s a movie about kindness, shot like a film noir, or a movie about cruelty, and set in the poor quarters of Le Havre, the French port city. The plot: Ex-artist and workingman Marcel, who has to take his mortally ill wife to the hospital, later discovers a young refugee from Gabon hiding in his shack. He decides to help the boy elude the police and flee to his relatives in England — though Marcel has little money and few resources.  His community, most of whom admired and loved his wife, help him, despite one rat in their midst, and he also gets help from unexpected quarters. The style is pure Kaurismaki and the ending is reminiscent of both De Sica and Capra.


Now, the allusions. The hero, a threadbare but suave ex-Parisian Bohemian/writer turned shoeshine man, played by Andre Wilms, is named “Marcel Marx,” a reference to Karl Marx (and maybe to Groucho, Chico and Harpo), and also to Marcel Carne, the director of the great WW2 Era  French film classic Children of Paradise. (It’s also an allusion to the character of the same name that Wilms played in Kaurismaki’s 1990 Paris-set La Vie de Boheme.) Marcel’s hard-working self-sacrificing wife (played by Kaurismaki‘s longtime actress Kati Outinen), is named Arletty, who was the tough cookie and street beauty Garance of Children of Paradise, and who played similar characters in several other Carne-Jacques Prevert classics, including Andre Bazin’s favorite Le Jour Se Leve.

Idrissa, the illegal fugitive immigrant boy from Gabon (played by Blondin Miguel), who arrives in Le Havre, smuggled in a cargo box, and whom  Marcel tries to rescue from the authorities after Arletty is hospitalized, may get his name from Idrissa Ouedraogo (Anger of the Gods), the highly regarded African filmmaker from Burkina Fasso, who is a contemporary of  Kaurismaki’s and shares some of his film festival cache. The dour and perceptive  Detective Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) — who is assigned to track down the boy, but is reluctant to mess with a “crime“ not really, in his view, criminal — may indeed  owe his name to the French Impressionist painter (which also might explain Det. Monet’s ambivalent outlook and personality). But the character is certainly inspired by the savvy flics of Jean-Pierre Melville’s film noirs, like Perier in Le Samourai and Bourvil in Le Cercle Rouge. Monet shares with them the usual Melville cop’s deadpan ingenuity, surprising moral sense and connections to the “other side.” (So too, “Melville,” Jean-Pierre’s pseudonym, was an allusion to American sea novelist Herman Melville.)

More. The nameless spy and snitch played by Jean-Pierre Leaud in Le Havre undoubtedly refers to the spies and snitches of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1943 poison pen thriller Le Corbeau, also a product of the French cinema’s Vichy years. (And Leaud, of course, reminds us of his cinematic father/counterpart, Francois Truffaut.) Rocker  Little Bob (Roberto Piazza), the key to the film’s highly improbable but gratifying climax, connects us to a whole Kaurismaki-treasured vinyl world of ’50s rock and rockabilly. Laika, who is Marcel and Arletty’s very sympathetic pet canine, with her reassuring bark, takes her name from the Soviet space program’s famed cosmonaut dog.

Comic filmmaker Pierre Etaix, a Mon Oncle gagman and therefore a bridge to the genius clown/cineaste Jacques Tati, plays Arletty’s physician Dr. Becker, no doubt named for one of Kaurismaki’s favorite filmmakers, Jacques Becker (Casque d‘Or). Luce Vigo, who plays the neighborhood’s sandwich lady, is the daughter of Jean Vigo, who died at 29 after directing L’Atalante (1934), the film Aki has called the most beautiful ever made. And the city where all this takes place, Le Havre, is an allusion to itself, as we remember Le Havre from another film set there (but shot in a studio) — by Carne and Prevert, but not with Arletty: the 1938 poetic realist masterpiece Quai des Brumes, or Port of Shadows. Port of Shadows, by the way, is an ideal title for an Aki Kaurismaki film.

That’s an awful lot of allusions or maybe-allusions and I probably don’t even have them all. (Thanks to Jim Hoberman and the Criterion booklet’s Michael Sicinski for some of them.) Le Havre, a great favorite at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, has a dimension of reality but it also exists in its own private world of cinephilia and Kaurismakiana. It’s simply not intended as a believably realistic film — and  even its seeming realism (the straight-on slow camera style, the drab locations, the terse dialogue), is, in its way, yet another filmic allusion, this time to Italian neo-realism or to Robert Bresson.

Kaurismaki’s movie instead, is a mix of a semi-naturalistic lower depths milieu and background (the exteriors were shot on location), with an ensemble of Kaurismaki people walking real Le Havre streets in a cinematic paradise of references and  favorites. No wonder so many film critics and cinephiles loved it so much. As we watch Le Havre, we can spot the allusions and revisit all these worlds with him. His love of cinema and his desire to possess and revisit it mirrors our own.

And we can also appreciate the humanity of Le Havre, seeping up through the cinematic setting. The movie is about generosity of spirit, the ties of human warmth that bind us together, or should but often don’t. Ironically, the kindness emanates from a man who initially seems somewhat self-absorbed and even selfish. Marcel, who hits the bar while his wife prepares supper, and doesn’t push her to eat with him (when we know she‘s in pain), and seems not to notice that his precious, self-sacrificing wife is sick, even mortally ill. Then, as if in mortified compensation, he keeps visiting her in her hospital bed (while she lies to him about the gravity of her illness), bringing her flowers, until she tells him to stay away until she’s better. (We realize she probably never will be.)

He then devotes himself to a total stranger, Idrissa, risking jail or confiscation for himself and everyone who aids them. That is the mystery of the film: Does Marcel become a Good Samaritan out of guilt, or restlessness, or out of shock at the revelation of his own inattention and selfishness.  Or does he simply wish to become a good person?


Many have  commented on the Le Havre’s improbably happy ending, where Idrissa not only sails away to join his family (possibly) in England, but Marcel later goes to the hospital to find Arletty miraculously cured and ready to return home. Miraculous indeed: worthy, in fact, of the improbably upbeat last reel of The Last Laugh. But Kaurismaki explains the ending differently in his interview with fellow Finn Peter vn Bagh in the Criterion booklet. He actually shot two endings for the film — one unhappy one, where Marcel discovers Arletty  gone from her bed, and the bed stripped (as happen after a patent dies) when he pays his last visit, and another happy one where he finds Dr. Becker and a living Arletty and they tell him of the cure.

Instead of choosing one or the other, Kaurismaki included them both, one after the other (the happy ending last). And we can choose to believe whichever one we want. Most observers seem to embrace the second ending. I believe the first, but am happy to be contradicted.


Anyway, the ensemble plays quietly and beautifully. Wilms and Outinen move us. Kaurismaki guides us poignantly to the movies and memories he loves. The background is both grim and wistful. Laika barks. Little Bob rocks.  Le Havre is a bluish port of shadows. The light is a benediction. And there is room for kindness — in our films, as well as in our lives. (In French and English, with English subtitles.)

Extras: Interview with Andre Wilms; Footage from the 2011 Cannes Film Festival including a press conference and a French TV interview with the cast and crew;  TV interview with Kati Outinen; Concert footage with Little Bob; Booklet with essay by Michel Sicinski and a Peter von Bagh interview with Kaurismaki.

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I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

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