Saturday, 7 April 2012

Le Havre by Aki Kaurismäki

Andre Wilms and Francois Monnie
Le Havre, the latest film by the maverick Finnish Director, Aki Kaurismäki, premiered in London last night. It has taken a long time to arrive here across the Channel, because this Finnish/French collaboration was first shown in Cannes last year and is already out on DVD in Finland. But the fact that an European art film of this kind is on even general release here, with a reasonable ad campaign, must be seen as a good thing. So better late than never, I say.

Advert in The Standard Thursday 5 April 2012
I dragged my whole family to The Renoir near Russell Square in London to see Le Havre, partly because of the Finnish director, and I never miss an opportunity to remind the now grown-up children of their Finnish roots. Also, The Man Without a Past is one of my favourite films and I went to school and university with the Executive Producer of Le Havre, Hanna Hemilä.

Le Havre is a story, told in French with French/Finnish cast, of a kindly shoe shiner Marcel Marx (Andre Wilms) who, having fallen on bad times (too many people wear sports shoes nowadays), takes pity on an illegal African immigrant boy, Idrissa, (Blondin Miguel) and hides him from the French authorities. But this is a Kaurismäki film, so we're not plunged into a dark tale of social injustice, nor into a fast plotted thriller. At each turn our assumptions are overturned as this simple tale of good and bad becomes more and more surreal.

The pace of the film is in Kaurismäki's signature style, slow. The director allows us the time to examine each character in detail. The still shots are like pieces of static art, rather than scenes out of moving pictures. At the start of the film, for example, Idrissa is told to flee the container in which he is found merely by the facial expressions of his (we find out later) grandfather. Or, we are initially told of the terrible illness of Marcel's wife, Arletty (Kati Outinen - a veteran of Kaurismäki's films), through her silent suffering.

As a consequence Le Havre is like watching a cartoon in slow motion. In my opinion this lack of pace is the Achilles heel of the film. Although beautifully shot and plotted, I think Le Havre could have been about half an hour shorter. As an old teacher of my creative writing class once said, 'There's no excuse for boring the reader.' I think the same goes for films. However beautifully shot, however cleverly plotted, however good the dialogue is, none of it is any use if the audience, half-way through it, fidgeting in their seats, are wishing for the film to end.

In spite of this, there are some funny, laugh-out-loud, moments in the film. The dialogue between the characters is often truly comic, as is the general chatter we are privy to in the bar which Monsieur Marx frequents. But the comedy arrives too late - Kaurismäki does not allow his audience to feel the humour until they've already wished the film's speedy conclusion.

This slow pace and the still shots put great pressure on the actors, something which they all deal with admirably. Andre Wilms as Marcel Marx in the lead is superbly understated in his natural generosity; Francois Monnie as the Detective with a kind heart is quietly menacing. I've also been a fan of Elina Salo since I was growing up in Finland and she was always on TV in old black and white 50's films, or as the voice of Little My in the Moomintrolls. Here she is brilliantly cast as the pretty, ageing cafe owner, Claire, with a heavy past.

Elina Salo with Andre Wilms
There is one thing in Le Havre that puzzled all of us, that of the appearance of boiled eggs. They were everywhere: in Marcel's lunchbox, at the counter in Claire's bar, even on the breakfast table chez Marx.

For all its slowness of pace, I'd still recommend you go and see this film (and not just because of my Finnish connections). Kaurismäki has a knack for making his stories and characters stay with you forever. I've been reliving Le Havre all night - hence this blog.

There is an excellent interview by Simon Hattenstone with Aki Kaurismäki in The Guardian online here.

1 comment:

Rose said...

Oh I hope to see this- for me absolute decadence is a solo trip to the cinema- preferably a Curzon/ Everyman/ cosy one.