Aki Kaurismäki is one of those directors whose work is impossible to confuse with anyone else’s. Certainly, his style could be compared to Béla Tarr’s in the somberly staged performance of the actors. The Hungarian master’s work is more stately in its pace, though, with a blanket of chiaroscuro drawn across every frame. Kaurismäki’s image, by contrast, is bathed in a white light that can be unforgiving. The speed of his films mirrors the pace of everyday life in a small community, rather than the shifting of continents evoked by Tarr’s films. However slow Tarr’s speed, his camera tends towards perpetual motion, like the planets, while Kaurismäki often keeps his camera fixed to record his actors in tableaux, motionless as portrait paintings.
At the other end of the scale, Kaurismäki’s style may have inspired the French comedy “La Fée” (The Fairy), similarly stark in its lighting. Like Kaurismäki, directors Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon favor patches of bright primary colors, and cast actors with interesting faces rather than beautiful ones, with a talent for deadpan. Being a comedy, though, “La Fée” equally evokes the gangly caricature of a cartoon such as Popeye, whereas Kaurismäki, even when incorporating comedy, protects his characters’ dignity.
“Le Havre”, Kaurismäki’s most recent film, is set in the titular coastal city of north-west France. When an employee at the port hears a baby crying inside a container, paramedics and a counter-terrorist team stand by as the huge metal box is opened. The armed officers come off as absurdly optimistic, prepared for a pack of vigorous young men to spring from the container. The paramedics, meanwhile, anticipate the worst: a box of dead bodies. The two teams could be archetypes of the diametrically opposed reactions to asylum seekers: reject or protect.
Neither group’s worst-case scenario is realized: the door swings open to reveal a weary cross-section of humanity: young and old, men and women, fat and thin. Only a young boy, Idrisssa, has enough energy to escape. As he runs through a narrow crack between the containers, one of the officers raises his rifle, but the police inspector intervenes, saying, ‘he’s only a child’. As the forces of order scour Le Havre for the escaped migrant, the police inspector seems like an Inspector Javert, implacably pursuing a crime of self-preservation. But his initial protective gesture towards Idrissa already hints at his softer side. The only real villain in the film is played by Jean-Pierre Léaud in a cameo.
With its focus on illegal migration, “Le Havre” treats a pressing contemporary theme. At the same time, it seeks to shape the audience’s perspective through a provocative comparison with the past. In Le Havre, Idrissa is protected by a working-class community strongly reminiscent of those in the 1930s films of Marcel Carné and Jean Renoir, from their solidarity down to their costumes. An old shoeshine named Marcel Marx gives Idrissa food and cash and is soon hiding the little boy his own house. When Marcel goes on a trip to find one of Idrissa’s relatives, he leaves the boy with the woman who runs the bakery across the street. The neighborhood grocer, previously exasperated by Marcel’s endless tab, immediately offers his excess stock when he learns that Marcel has an extra mouth to feed.
By evoking cinema from the eve of World War II, Kaurismäki seems to draw a comparison between a present-day neighborhood rallying together to protect an innocent and vulnerable little boy, and those who hid their Jewish friends to stop them being deported and murdered in 1930s and 40s. The common thread linking the two situations is that of individuals defying unjust laws in support of their own sense of what is right. Just as there were informants in wartime, so too in present-day Le Havre there is a malicious neighbor (complete with black gloves) who observes the comings-and-goings in the street and reports his suspicions to the police.
There is another apparent allusion to World War II in the characters’ names, most notably the French first name and German surname of Marcel Marx, who is married to a German woman, Arletty, an iconic reference to classic French cinema. If Kaurismäki were using the Second World War as a simple trope, there would have been a clear division of French names for good characters and German names for bad ones. By combining French and German in the film’s protagonists, Kaurismäki reflects a change in attitude that needs to take place in order to address immigration more compassionately: rather than casting the foreigner as the villain, we need to recognize that most of us have a hybrid background. More importantly, though, we need to overcome a fixation on ethnic and national divisions in order to focus on the underlying humanity that unites us.