What would it take to become so moved by the plight of another—someone whose background and circumstances were radically different from your own—that you rearranged your life in order to offer that person succor, even at great risk to yourself and your loved ones? History tends to lionize sacrifices of this kind, since they are so rare. But can we imagine a world in which they were reflexive, an automatic function of our shared humanity? It seems fair to say that the events of the previous century have made this humanist narrative—in both the cinematic and philosophical sense—harder and harder to put our faith in. Nevertheless, Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre (2011) boldly flouts cynicism and offers a glimpse of just such utopian empathy.
Kaurismäki’s story involves a man of the most modest means coming to the rescue of a young stranger, and his community almost instinctually rallying around the effort. For his selfless good deed, our Samaritan is rewarded with no less than a miracle. What we are being presented with here is an image of our world as we all wish it could be, if only we cared enough for one another. It’s a portrait of a humble man doing his very best imitation of Christ.
Those of us who have been following Kaurismäki’s cinema over the past twenty-five or so years will not be surprised by this vote of confidence in the human race. We may immediately recognize un film d’Aki by his patented brand of affective reserve and rumpled formalism—he favors blue and beige foregrounds that hold the light with a warm, painterly glow; tends to limit camera movement; tamps down overt drama from his performers; and envelops this deadpan field of action with a unique musical ambience, chiefly derived from 1950s and ’60s rockabilly. There’s also a fair amount of free-flowing alcohol. But it’s his artistic and empathetic alignment with society’s outcasts that truly defines his cinema. The world of Finland’s highest-profile auteur, not unlike that of Howard Hawks, is one of hard-won faith in basic decency, an unsentimental humanism that can even squeeze in space for love.
Kaurismäki’s work demonstrates an almost unswerving concern with the working classes and the lumpen proletariat, resulting in an oeuvre unparalleled in its breadth of humanist generosity. These are lives of negotiation and muddling through, not of high drama. Sometimes, as in the case of his 1996 masterwork Drifting Clouds, the director details the daily struggles of people trying to improve their lot and realize their dreams within the circumscribed agency available to them as the long-term poor. In other instances, such as 1990’s bleak cri de coeur The Match Factory Girl, individuals are simply trying to survive. And in still others, like the warmhearted comedy The Man Without a Past, from 2002, Kaurismäki is mostly content to paint a broad cinematic mural of life on society’s margins, which can be a space of simple pleasures and deep camaraderie—if the law and the authorities have the decency to leave a thriving community alone.
Naturally, this is a big if. And in addition to Kaurismäki’s commitment to using his idiosyncratic auteur cinema to champion the underdog, there is another major sociopolitical thread that runs through virtually all of his films—even his most overtly apolitical works, the shaggy-dog larks with the Finnish cult novelty rock band the Leningrad Cowboys, made between 1989 and 1994—an abiding streak of anarchism, a dedication to free association, borderless states, and the absolute right of all to have access to everything they need, not just to survive but to thrive. That is, Kaurismäki’s cinema is a celebration of the right to happiness, good friends, good drink, rock and roll. Wealth should have absolutely nothing to do with one’s access to life’s pleasures. Those who have must give, and those who do not should never give up. If there is one bedrock value that underpins all moral aspects of Kaurismäki’s universe, it is best summed up in the title of one of his short films: Always Be a Human.
Le Havre carries on this grand project, but it differs somewhat from Kaurismäki’s earlier work in being more unabashedly, and directly, political. While Kaurismäki’s films have always engaged the real world, they have tended to do so in rather general terms. Le Havre depicts a more specific situation, one instance of so-called illegal immigration that can stand in for the experiences of multitudes across the globe. All European nations are grappling with how best to respond to human beings who wish, or need, to move. Even the “liberal” Scandinavian countries have undergone unexpected soul-searching regarding the backlash against immigrant communities, both rhetorical (the 2005 Jyllands-Posten scandal in Denmark, involving the publication of cartoons of Muhammad) and horrifyingly material (the July 2011 murder of seventy-seven innocent people in Norway by ultranationalist Anders Behring Breivik). However, contemporary crises, from the banlieue riots to the veil ban, make France a particularly knotty site for these global questions, and Kaurismäki knows this. What is unusual about Le Havre’s intervention into our geopolitical moment is its unflagging optimism, its assumption that our best selves will emerge to meet the challenges of history.
The story focuses on the strategically named Marcel Marx (André Wilms), an old shoeshiner. He and his wife, Arletty (Kaurismäki regular Kati Outinen), are living a modest life in the French port town of the title when she’s hospitalized with a terminal illness. Not long afterward, on the docks, a noise is heard inside a cargo container just off a freighter from Gabon. Inside is a large group of Africans being smuggled into France. All are detained except for one young boy, Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), who makes a break for it. He ends up in Marcel’s care, and eventually everyone on Marcel’s block (some of whom have never had much use for the perpetually hard-up boot polisher) pitches in to conceal Idrissa from the authorities.
Le Havre engages with issues of African immigration, legal status, and the basic rights of citizenship—fundamental questions at the heart of contemporary Europe and the legacy of its social democratic states. But rather than simply hold forth on such complex matters, Kaurismäki explores them through stylistic means. Formally, his films have always been about bodies in space, their movement and their immobility. Filmic space in his work is both abstract—often flattened, organized through light and color into painterly mass—and soulful, “lived-in.” Whether he is using cinematography proper or the enveloping capacity of offscreen sound, describing landscape or interior, his work is primarily about the dialectic of freedom and confinement.
In purely constructivist terms, Kaurismäki is a curious combination of Robert Bresson and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Bresson, the Catholic materialist, examined the possible redemption of the world through piercing attention to its surfaces, the movement of objects through dense air, a hand as it slices an empty frame—that is, the sudden shift from nothing to something, or vice versa, which may not always be felicitous but at least reflects change, and thus life and hope. Fassbinder, by contrast, treated filmic space as a void that, at any moment, could be filled with violence or, since human desire is erratic, simply an accusing look or a sexual overture or a reversal of political fortune. Despite their diametrically opposed sensibilities, both men understood filmic space as the gulf across which desires were staged and traversed.
Kaurismäki understands this too, but he has a very different sense of desire, one that is altogether more casual, more fundamentally human, and in that respect more shared, essentially social. When, for example, in Le Havre we see Marcel’s small street, with the pub, the bakery, and the grocer’s shop, we are given tight glances down the diagonal alleyway, the shops illuminated and the rest of the area cloaked in a generalized darkness. These are the spaces that house Marcel’s neighbors and allies; the larger area beyond this street is uncertain. Or when Detective Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) first enters the bar, the camera isolates him against the door, and then tracks him as he makes his way through the once gregarious, now silent working-class patrons, parting them like a sea. Broad Fassbinderian vision frequently gives way to close, intimate Bressonian exchange—the social world as a navigation of multiple registers of bodily need.
The social aspect of Kaurismäki’s cinematic space can perhaps best be summed up by reference to the great French historian and urban critic Michel de Certeau. In The Practice of Everyday Life, Certeau describes a kind of commonplace, unsystematic anarchism whereby people, especially those living under duress or in some of the most economically unfavorable conditions, manage to “make do,” day after day. He notes the difference between “strategies,” which are the prerogative of the privileged, and “tactics,” those on-the-ground, in-the-moment spatial practices forged by those who have to improvise. Kaurismäki’s cinema is one of tactics, and he treats the spaces he describes as occasions for the elaboration of those tactics.
This means that the characters Kaurismäki examines (although “examines” sounds far too clinical for the deep affection in which he obviously holds them) are thinking rather than emoting, and are, in some sense, simply too busy for drama. The classical signals of overindulged bourgeois subjectivity (a cinematic holdover from D. W. Griffith’s Victorianism) have no place in Kaurismäki’s world. But at the same time, there is a playfulness and complete lack of claustrophobia in his cinema. Among the world’s “art film” auteurs, he has always stood out for his unpretentiousness and accessibility, even in his most deadpan, overtly abstract films. This is partly because Kaurismäki’s universe, whether whimsical or downcast, is always a well-defined, lived-in place. His camera describes cheap flats and flophouses, barrooms and shops, and all the palpable spaces that connect them—the streets and alleys, the weed-covered fields, and even the distance across an empty room. But he is able to abjure what we typically think of as realism—the uninflected copying of the surfaces of things, including so-called normal behavior—because his flat, declarative style, while abstract, is not an abstraction. Rather, it presents language, action, and environment as part of a total way of being—what the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called the “habitus.” Kaurismäki’s is a different kind of realism, and once we adjust to its rhythms, a great many of us can find ourselves reflected in its dingy mirror.
While Kaurismäki’s films are so often about the lifeworlds of urban Helsinki, he is a distinctly cosmopolitan filmmaker, and Le Havre is not his first feature made outside of Finland. In fact, it is his second set entirely in France. His first, 1992’s La vie de bohème, is an adaptation of Henri Murger’s novel that takes place in Paris and stars Wilms as the avant-garde playwright Marcel, one of a number of dissolute, fringe-dwelling artists who scrape by, or fail to, in the gutters of the city. Le Havre could be said to represent a formal recapitulation or “second verse” of that film (though certainly not a sequel). Wilms appears again as Marcel; he speaks of having once lived “la vie de bohème dans Paris.”
It could be said that Kaurismäki himself has observed an itinerary similar to Marcel’s, shifting his thematic focus away from romantic losers and toward spontaneous political gestures. Kaurismäki has certainly not left bohemia behind entirely, like Marcel has, but Le Havre is indeed a film that depicts the political and juridical stakes in contemporary Europe in a far more straightforward, less attenuated manner than a film like The Man Without a Past, or such pastiche works as Juha (1999) or Lights in the Dusk (2006), which triangulate questions of authority through genre codes (silent cinema and film noir, respectively). And unlike other Kaurismäki films that chronicle the lives of the down-and-out, Le Havre does not and cannot offer semipermanent life on society’s margins as a solution. Idrissa is, as they say, “on the grid,” and so Le Havre must engage with a new set of problems—human smuggling, detention centers, national immigration police, levels of jurisdiction, self-appointed informers.
For most of his career, Kaurismäki has made Helsinki the laboratory for his views on human ethics: to “always be a human” means negotiating the tight spaces we are given, through desire and creativity, remembering that any society will be judged by how it cares for its most vulnerable members, that empathy, solidarity, and resistance on behalf of one’s fellow human beings is a political choice, and that “society” is little more than the sum total of such choices. His internationalist projects, of which Le Havre is the most fully realized, examine these imperatives within different cultural contexts. But the ideals are the same. (Fittingly, Kaurismäki plans to make Le Havre part of a global trilogy, with subsequent films set in Spain and Germany.)
Kaurismäki’s Le Havre is a community, one in which people don’t think twice about helping an immigrant (just as the best of them would have hidden a Jew from the Vichy government years before). And in the coda, both a woman and nature itself are reborn. Sappy? I don’t know. Perhaps instead we should call it “counterfactual utopianism.” Kaurismäki uses cinema to envision a world in which the love of humanity overcomes borders, even the one between life and death. His film demonstrates the necessary humanist dialectic—that opening to the other, being changed, means becoming the other, shifting who our family, the very “we,” is. A guarded boundary is a death sentence—the barricade of a self that is destined to wither.
Michael Sicinski is a writer and critic who specializes in the analysis of experimental cinema. He is a frequent contributor to Cinema Scope, Cineaste, and Cargo. He also teaches film studies in the Art History Department at the University of Houston.