There was a time when a disproportionate number of the foreign films I saw were by the Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki, just because he made a lot of them, and they were fairly widely released. They’re generally fairly short, concise, deadpan, dealing with down-to-earth situations without a lot of over-emoting; movies you’d ideally watch while wearing sunglasses and smoking cigarettes. I don’t think any of them ever meant a lot to me really, but if you were into art cinema, it’s the kind of thing you got served and therefore ate. Anyway, he’s been much less productive in recent years, and it’s been a long time since I saw a Kaurismaki film. But he’s back with Le Havre, generally praised as one of the best entries at this year’s Cannes festival, and playing now at the Bell Lightbox.
The film revolves around an aging shoe-shine guy, Marcel, in the (as presented here anyway) highly unglamorous French port city, going through a highly minimal life in a highly minimal way, while his wife’s in the hospital with a seemingly incurable disease. Eating his lunch one day, he happens on an African kid, Idrissa, who’s on the run after the cops intercepted the container smuggling him and others into London; Idrissa later follows him home, and Marcel takes his cause on board; to hide him from the authorities and get him to his family.
The movie reminds you (if you needed to be reminded) of how disposable most movies are; of how even major events pass by in an inconsequential, affectless flurry. Marcel has a dog (played by Laika, who gets prominent billing in the opening titles), and when Kaurismaki gives us shots of Laika, which is quite often, he really gives us shots of Laika: usually nicely and fully presented in the middle of the frame, looking blissfully happy. Another example – Marcel’s wife asks him to stay away for two weeks while she’s undergoing her treatment, and then to bring her yellow dress, which she identifies as the one she wore on a particular occasion. Later on he opens her side of the closet, and we see two dresses, the yellow one and just one other one (his side contains just a single suit). Of course it’s a sad summary of their meager circumstances. But still, the yellow dress counts. The point is about the weight of moments and experiences. Sometimes the weight is crushing – we gain a tangible sense of the frustrations and humiliations of Marcel’s way of life (one of the movie’s first shots is of feet passing him by in the train station, none of them wearing anything that would need to be polished). Sometimes, life yields miracles. The tragedy for many of us is that by inoculating ourselves from the former, we fail to understand the latter.
The Weight of Moments
The movie’s not romantic or dreamy though – it’s pragmatic and tough-minded, and as always, Kaurismaki keeps overt displays of emotion to an absurdist minimum. It’s also a tribute to the classic notion of community, where you have the grocer and the baker and the bar owner, and they all realize they’re in it together (even the cop perceives this, regardless that in the past he’s put some of the locals in jail). And although Kaurismaki presents this in extremely localized terms, he also conveys how the community is potentially vast, easily taking on the plight of a lost African kid as its own (the film encompasses a compelling mini-portrait of his dispossessed family, with a grandfather stuck in a refugee centre and his mother living illegally in London, working in a “well-paid” job in a Chinese laundry), and including a mysterious rock icon called “Little Bob” - seemingly playing a version of himself - who lends himself to a “trendy charity concert” on the boy’s behalf. All in all, it’s a great little movie. It’s almost a shame though, because I have so much activity on my movie to-do list already, and now I’m thinking I might have to go back and watch some of those earlier films again.
I always tend to link Kaurismaki in my mind with the American director Jim Jarmusch, who started around the same time and had a quite similar reputation and prominence for a while; in fact, the two men are friends. I recently rewatched two of the films from Jarmusch’s heyday (I’m telling you, that movie to-do list really has no end), and it was a very satisfying exercise. Night on Earth, from 1991, depicts five different cab rides, happening simultaneously in Los Angeles, New York, Paris, Rome and Helsinki. The first, with Winona Ryder and Gena Rowlands, depicts a casting agent trying to entice the driver into doing a screen test, but finding she prefers her life’s modest parameters to the instability, however lucrative and glamorous, of Hollywood stardom. Nice enough, but a minor irony at best.
As the film progresses though, Jarmusch subtly and masterfully increases the existential stakes; the second last episode deals with a passenger who dies (although in farcical circumstances) and the final sequence – in Helsinki, with a group of actors from Kaurismaki’s films – incorporates death into its very essence, constructing a character who’s come to be largely defined by it. In retrospect, the film’s scope is considerable, moving from an America where values are often indistinguishable from negotiations, to a Europe where the stakes, if materially smaller and quieter, are better understood. On top of all this, naturally, the film just overflows with Jarmusch’s trademark cool.
And then I rewatched the even more iconic Down by Law, where Tom Waits and John Lurie play two disaffected New Orleans guys, both set up and thrown into jail where they end up sharing a cell. After a while they’re joined by a third cellmate, a wacky Italian played by Roberto Benigni (who’s also in Night by Earth; Jarmusch uses the problematic actor so well that it almost compensates for Life is Beautiful). The three of them escape and wander through the swamps, from which they eventually emerge, with Benigni’s character finding a ridiculously convenient happy ending and the other two ending up at a literal fork in a road, un-signposted and with directions unknown, which nevertheless represents a more coherent life choice than they’ve ever possessed prior to that (of course, while you’re watching it, the movie doesn’t feel at all like a gravitation toward coherence – you only think of that afterwards). Neither Kaurismaki nor Jarmusch makes “realistic” films in the way we usually use the term; on the contrary, beneath their laconic personae, they share a sharp understanding of how supposed realism can just turn into clutter and convention. Strip all that away, and it’s astonishing what you find underneath.