By Don Simpson | November 7, 2011
Director: Aki Kaurismäki
Writer: Aki Kaurismäki
Starring: André Wilms, Kati Outinen, Blondin Miguel, Quoc-Dung Nguyen, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Elina Salo, Evelyne Didi, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Little Bob
There seem to be a lot of motionless people in Aki Kaurismäki’s films — a statement that is true in both the literal and figurative sense — and their frigidity works in oblique juxtaposition to the hustle and bustle of the modern world. For instance, take the two shoeshiners, Chang (Quoc-Dung Nguyen) and Marcel (André Wilms), at the train station during the opening sequence of Le Havre; they stand frozen stiff like mannequins as the masses of determined travelers barrel up and down the train platform. Kaurismäki’s visual differentiation of Chang and Marcel from the remainder of the population is quite purposeful. It just takes a while for us, the audience, to become aware of just how different they are.
As it turns out, Chang and Marcel are part of a certain subset of Le Havre, Normandy’s population who are devout humanists. No one verbally declares any proclamations about this group of neighbors’ philosophy, motivations or their unique sense of comradery and kindness; but their goodness becomes increasingly obvious throughout the course of Le Havre, merely through the observation of their actions. They obviously take the “fraternité” (brotherhood) portion of France’s motto to heart, just as they personify the communal philosophies of Karl Marx (it is certainly no small coincidence that Marcel’s surname is also Marx).
The only time that money matters to anyone in this film is when it serves to save someone — such as the assisting of a young African refugee to reach his intended destination. Said refugee, Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), risks imprisonment and deportation if the French government catches him; but Marcel and his friendly neighbors pitch in to protect Idrissa until they are able to ensure that he can safely continue his journey to London. All the while, Marcel’s wife Arletty (Kati Outinen) is hospitalized and the same group of people spend as much time as possible at her bedside.
Whether or not people this selfless and giving actually exist in this world is not certain. Kaurismäki’s film is a political fairy tale that exists in sharp opposition to the dangerously hateful attitude that much of the western world has developed towards immigration. Le Havre bears some resemblance to the real world, only because immigration is a problem there as well; but otherwise, the world Kaurismäki creates is quite fantastical…or, you might say, cinematical — as Kaurismäki channels the aesthetic of classic French directors such as Marcel Carné and Jean-Pierre Melville. Whether or not Kaurismäki’s approach ends up diminishing the overt political message of Le Havre will be left up to the audience to decide.