An immigration fairy tale of human decency
With “Le Havre,’’ Aki Kaurismäki has made an immigration caper that makes comically dramatizing a political point of view look easy. It’s as if he heard there was breaking news at the docks - more African refugees have turned up! - in the French port of the title and raced over with his camera. The movie’s obviously not a documentary. You need great coaching for staging and characters as archly finessed as these, and only a chambermaid could get an ending as satisfyingly tidy. The movie denounces xenophobia and bargain-basement racism as passé. One reason it looks so easy with Kaurismäki is that he’s a Finn drifting south to look at how the French handle their brown people. In one sense, all he’s doing is looking. But that gaze is loaded. It’s 90-something blithe minutes of “I’ve got my eye’’ on you.
A shipping container turns up with a group of African refugees inside, one of whom, a boy named Idrissa (Blondin Miguel - how’s that for a name), escapes and winds up hidden in the care of an old shoeshine guy named Marcel (André Wilms). What follows combines and dismantles social comedy and romantic melodrama so that what’s funny and what’s amusing occur almost despite the uninflected manner in which each is presented. No one better embodies the spirit of that enterprise than the Kaurismäki regular Kati Outinen, who plays Marcel’s wife, Arletty, and spends most of the film propped up in a hospital bed.
Outinen’s entire way of being in front of a camera constitutes a modest parody of sadness and tragedy and happiness and femininity, of the way the camera seeks and amplifies beauty - even when what it sees isn’t conventionally beautiful - and the way the close-up puts a frame around it. That faded smile, that floor-to-ceiling frown are parodies of the emotional range of Kaurismäki’s movies. The life is wrung from the French she speaks. When Marcel tends to Arletty in a moment of worry, romantic music blooms on the soundtrack: more parody. But this is that rare sort of jesting that transcends its jokes to inspire the feeling it mocks. These two have love in quotation marks and real love.
Her parody, wittingly or not (who can say?), matches her director’s. Kaurismäki’s movies are very funny in their rethinking of movie competence, of deliberateness. When Idrissa escapes the container, his every move is telegraphed in a series of still shots. After the portraits of the individual refugees, an elder looks at the boy who has stood up, and nods for him to take off, which he does with an utter lack of urgency. He jogs from the container, stops, in a new exterior shot, before the police, one of whom raises his gun, in a separate shot, only after the boy has started running again.
In a new shot, the boy runs into the foreground, between two containers, while the cop and a compassionate detective (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) stand behind him in the distance. This is noir style reconfigured so that the Richard Widmark character is an African kid in a too-small sweater worn over a too-big long-sleeve shirt. It’s much funnier to see this yourself than it is to read about it, like seeing that a dessert recipe calls for flour, butter, and sugar. It’s not that appealing until you’re eating cake.
The politics are right there on the surface as comedy. In the next scene Marcel’s shining shoes at the train station and sees Idrissa’s escape sold as front-page news: “Armed and Dangerous?’’ “Connections to Al Qaeda?’’ The genius of Kaurismäki’s exaggeration of cinematic nonchalance is that it mocks the media’s exaggeration of probable reality. This is what hyperventilating gets you. But the movie juxtaposes its immigration fairy tale with the French government’s hostility toward refugees in the form of reported arrests and demolished camps. Marcel visits a version of what’s left of one such camp in Calais, and, like everything else in “Le Havre,’’ those scenes are leavened by a sense of community and human decency.
Kaurismäki wrote the script, I think, with secret credit from Mother Goose and some fabric softener. The movie refers to Kafka, gives Marcel the loaded surname of Marx, suggests that even the French Catholic Church despises immigrants, and culminates in a “trendy’’ fund-raising concert featuring a singer named Little Bob. But the achievement of this movie is that Kaurismäki manages the seemingly impossible task of making a farce about farces. In other words, this is a very good movie in quotation marks and a very good movie.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.