‘Just think, they never sleep!’
‘And why not?’
‘Because they never get tired.’
‘And why not?’
‘Because they’re fools.’
‘Don’t fools get tired?’
‘How could fools get tired!’
– Franz Kafka, Children on a Country Road
As an American considering the absurdity of a recent election, which saw millions of people preach spending control as they pumped funds into campaigns that ultimately resulted in the status quo, I was reminded of a lesson Aki Kaurismaki’s Le Havre sets out to teach. At first glance, Kaurismaki’s dry, deadpan, and borderline cartoonish style doesn’t speak to a realistic portrayal of immigration and prejudice. This is not to say Kaurismaki’s films don’t always cradle a strand of social commentary into the downtrodden humor, just that nothing prepares a viewer for the kind of stark realities offered by Le Havre’s calming narrative. The filmmaker’s most sentimental and outspoken film to date, Le Havre reduces the concepts billions of people across the globe struggle with – race, class, and gender bias – to their brass tacks. Kaurismaki yells softly and pointedly that we all just need to get along and this choice is easy. His dry approach suits the black and white style; telling it straight, with a tinge of humor.
Le Havre spins the story of an initially aloof and indifferent shoeshiner, Marcel Marx, living in a small French seaside town, who stumbles on an African refugee missing from authorities. Marcel takes quickly to the boy and sets out, with the help of the community, to get him to his mother in London. The narrative plays like a fairy tale, where the “right thing” never comes into question. There are bad men dressed in black and people with guns who want to take the poor boy back where he came from. It’s a children’s book wrapped inside the cold and thoughtful quandary of people wrenched from the doldrums of adult life.
Stylistically, the characters seem to move just a moment after the film cuts to them, as though we can almost hear Kaurismaki call “Action” off-screen. This phenomenon is singular to Kaurismaki in the world of respectable cinema. Something most filmmakers lose by the time they exit an entry-level film class, between picking up a camera and becoming a professional, the fat just after “Action” gets trimmed away. Yet, for Kaurismaki that small amount of time is an integral part of his aesthetic. The effect is rather numbing, like the characters are moving in time-delay, contemplating even the smallest gesture. In a film where the “right” choice seems so easy for Marcel, the characters in Le Havre take an awful long time to make any kind of movement. While the delayed motion might be where most of Kaurismaki’s comedic timing stems (like Wes Anderson’s), in Le Havre it also acts as a symbol for a world slow to help others, even when that’s clearly the only path to sustained communal success.
Just as the characters reflect a society stuck in slow motion, the images create a striking dynamism between differences of race and wardrobe. Shot as though on a stage, with what at times looks like harsh spotlight pointed just off the side of a subject. Skin tones, especially the beautiful dark hues of black skin, are painted in waves of shadow and light. The crevices of the characters’ faces are highlighted to add curiosity to what goes on inside their minds. Where Kaurismaki’s past films, like The Match Factory Girl, emphasize humans who are hollowed into depression, Le Havre’s characters are deep in thought, desperate to be proactive. The world, much like Finland in Kaurismaki’s previous features, exists under a muted marine layer and drab colors. The outfits of our hero and his wife, along with many of the natives, are simple and hurried, composed of washed-out browns and grays. In contrast, the outfits worn by the African refugees are colorful, detailed, and artful. The black skin brings a foreign identity to the small town and the colorful outfits breathe a new life into it.
At its core, Le Havre is a celebratory film about kindness that says, “It’s not easy for some people to be nice, but it should be.” Unlike many films that take on complex themes of social inequality or reaching out to the “other,” Kaurismaki chooses to make a classic children’s narrative about right and wrong. If recent elections in America taught us anything, it’s that these issues really aren’t nearly as difficult as we make them. There’s a rare quality of hope and togetherness woven into Le Havre that can teach us something about our choices.