Magazine article Artforum International

Any Port in a Storm: JAMES QUANDT ON AKI KAURISMAKI'S LE HAVRE

Magazine article Artforum International

Any Port in a Storm: JAMES QUANDT ON AKI KAURISMAKI'S LE HAVRE

Article excerpt

ONLY IN AN AKI KAURISMAKI FILM would someone comfort a dying woman by reading Kafka to her, as happens near the end of the po-faced Finn's latest proletarian fable, Le Havre. Though still capable of such mordant jokes, Kaurismaki here largely forgoes the defining characteristics of his early cinema--battery-acid irony; mannerist compositions; elaborate conceptual jokes; the blithe and reckless jumbling of moods, sources, tones, and genres--in favor of the autumnal humanism and neo-Christian charity of his latter-day comedies of desperation Drifting Clouds (1996) and Man Without a Past (2002). Recognizing that he is incapable of making a polemical or documentary-like film about illegal immigrants in Europe, Kaurismaki has wisely resorted to the mode of Neorealist fairy tale to address a social issue long on his melancholy mind. Not for him the sickly mix of fantasy and social commentary in Vittorio De Sica's "once upon a time" Miracle in Milan (1951), but rather a rigorously stylized dream of community, sustained by a faith in humanity's capacity for compassion so profound and selfiess that it averts any challenge to credibility. Kaurismaki makes one desperate to believe, even as reality refutes every aspect of his optimistic vision.

Arletty--the expiring woman whose final days are (supposedly) cheered by Kafka's tale of the mad who cannot sleep, "Children on a Country Road"--is played by Kaurismaki's constant muse, Kati Outinen, once the director's murderous match-factory girl, here the loving wife of an aged shoeshine man with the alliterative and slightly over determined name of Marcel Marx (Andre Wilms). His humble vocation, Marcel claims, comes second only to the shepherds' as the one that best observes the lessons of the Sermon on the Mount--Kaurismaki's cinema has of late been crowded with religious symbolism, with resurrections, churches, miracles, priests, even the Salvation Army--and the vocation is threatened not only by the proliferation of sneakers but by snooty shoe retailers whose false consciousness makes them call their should-be colleagues "terrorists" and send them packing. Something of an Aki alter ego. Marcel "takes a glass sometimes," smokes copiously (Wilms jokes that he was hired for the role because "I have a very long nose, which allows me to smoke in the shower"), and prefers the appurtenances of the past. Much about contemporary life affronts the nostalgic Kaurismaki--it's little coincidence that the film's villain is the sole character to use a cell phone---and one infers that his perfect world would be assembled from Bakelite, Lillet, and Luckys, to the backbeat of Damia.

Appositely for a film set in France and replete with references to classic French cinema, the spirit of Le Havre is less that of Fassbinder's bitterly funny Arbeiter tragedies, which provided the model for some of Kaurismaki's early films, than that of Popular Front Renoir, the sense of working-class solidarity one finds in his La Vie est a nous and Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (both 1936). Much as the patrons of an inn allow Monsieur Lange, fleeing from the law after murdering his boss, to escape across the border, the sociable inhabitants of Marcel's neighborhood conspire to harbor a Gabonese boy hunted by police and to pay for his illegal transport to London, where his mother awaits him. "My camera hates modern architecture," Kaurismaki has said, and he sought out the remnants of prewar Le Havre in which to set his enchanting allegory. Life in Marcel and Arletty's tight-knit, time-forgotten quartier naturally centers on a bar, ironically named La Moderne, where the lost and the louche, men who look like cross-Channel cousins of Keith Richards with their gnarled teeth, hair by Mixmaster, and faces rutted by decades of dopes and calvados, hang out to debate the nature of Breton culture and Alsatian ducks. In this prole Utopia, Marcel takes his evening aperitif, or three, and finds the camaraderie that supports him in his cam- paign to shield and then secret away the refugee, a sweet-natured boy called Idrissa. …

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