Le Havre (Finland/France/Germany 2011)

Marcel (Andre Wilms) and Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) in Aki Kaurismäki’s ‘Le Havre’. Photographer: Marja-Leena Hukkanen. ©Sputnik Oy

Le Havre is the third of a trio of top films at Cannes in 2011 to arrive in the UK over the last couple of months – or perhaps the fourth if you include This Is Not a Film alongside Once Upon a Time in Anatolia and The Kid with a Bike. It’s annoying that we have to wait so long – and that we have to sit through months of Hollywood ‘awards’ films before we get to the good stuff. Some of us would cheer a distributor who brought out films like these in January/February.

Aki Kaurismäki is an unusual filmmaker. A Finn now domiciled in Portugal, here he turns up with a film set in the major French port of Le Havre and funded by French and German film and TV companies plus Finnish public investment. Kaurismäki has made a film in French before but this one appears to be the first of a new trilogy he hopes to make in various European ports. I’m something of a newcomer to his films but the two I have seen have shared a number of elements that I understand are quite common across his work. His films tend to feature working-class communities and dockside is a familiar destination. These are genuine ‘communities’ in which people look out for each other and especially when some official policy initiative threatens someone in the community. Kaurismäki prefers to create an imaginary world that is presented as if it were in a 1950s/60s/70s movie. So, not only do the cars, clothes, music etc. signal ‘pastness’ but also the use of studio sets alongside selected locations – and the sets are photographed according to the lighting and camera conventions of that period. The music too must fit this time period. The overall effect is a warm humanism cut with dry wit. Kaurismäki is himself a cinephile and there are numerous references to other auteur filmmakers, some directly but others in more diffuse ways.

In Le Havre the central character is Marcel Marx who lives with his wife Arletty and his dog Laika. Max somehow survives as a shoeshine man (since in this world, men still have leather shoes). Max befriends a young boy from Gabon who is hanging around the docks after the immigration police raid the shipping container in which he and a large group of ‘illegals’ have made the trip to France. The narrative then involves the attempt to get the boy to London to join his mother. In this Max calls on the whole local community of shopkeepers, bar-owners and local workers. In the meantime, Arletty has been taken to hospital with stomach pains.

Laika and Idrissa (Blondin Miguel). Photographer: Marja-Leena Hukkanen. ©Sputnik Oy

The film looks wonderful (thanks to Kaurismäki’s long-time collaborator Timo Salminen). The look invokes several of my favourite directors. At one point it feels like a Truffaut film – and then up pops Jean-Pierre Léaud. There is also a beautiful shot of a tree in blossom that could be from Ozu. But the strongest connections are to the ‘poetic realist’ films of late 1930s French cinema, signified by the name Arletty and the location. Coincidentally, the BFI have just released a restored version of Le quai des brumes in which Jean Gabin is a soldier hoping to create a new life abroad after he migrates from Le Havre – but he becomes embroiled in a local dispute when he tries to save a young woman. Kaurismäki confirms the links to such films by playing various chansons on the soundtrack. One other reference that has been picked up is to the films noirs of Jean-Pierre Melville in which there are often distinct relationships between the dogged police detective and the romantic anti-hero. In Kaurismäki’s film Marcel has several crucial encounters with Inspector Monet.

Le Havre is the perfect length and if, as a viewer, you allow yourself to be taken into this imagined world you should spend a relaxing and heart-warming 93 mins. I’ve seen the complaint that the boy is too appealing and that the theme is somehow too ‘politically correct’, but I’m impressed by the director’s firm control over his material and I had no problems whatsoever with the film’s approach.

Here’s a trailer with the song ‘Matelot’ by The Renegades.


  1. Sugel

    Long ago I used to be a fan of Aki Kaurismaki’s films, but his latest films just go on my nerves. What used to be fresh is now only painfully repetitive. Like this film, which is so naive, false, pretentious and ridiculous, combined with poor storytelling and direction. Of course,the actors, like Andre Wilms and his dog, are good and the cinematography is flawless, but I can’t really understand, that serious people take this film seriously and some find it even a work of a genius! It seems that what ever he does, some people hail without any closer analysis. Le Havre’s message is of course human and important, but it’s completely wasted, the film doesn’t do justice to its subject matter. It’s just mediocre in every respect.


    • Roy Stafford

      You have the advantage if you have seen several of Kaurismäki’s earlier films. However, I’m not sure that continuing to make essentially the same film narrative is necessarily a bad thing – it served Ozu pretty well.

      Everyone I know who has seen Le Havre has enjoyed it.


      • Keith Hussein

        Totally agree, a renewal of Popular Front politics and poetic realist aesthetics produces a warm film with a subtle political committment to inclusiveness – I’m actually finishing a paper on it right now to that effect.

        I’d like to hear your thoughts on this Roy.


      • Roy Stafford

        I’m not sure exactly what your paper will argue but I urge a little caution. Is it possible to renew ‘Popular Front’ politics, which I would have thought were concerned with a particular time period and a particular set of circumstances in France? Also, it’s always tricky to infer political intentions in the work of auteur filmmakers. I understand the previous commentator’s complaint that Le Havre is perhaps not a ‘political film’ in the current climate since it seems to be nostalgic rather than analytical and doesn’t offer any ‘solutions’ – or reveal anything new through it’s aesthetic. Perhaps Kaurismäki is just being playful? Personally, I don’t think so, but I hesitate to claim his work as radical/political rather than ‘humanist’.

        You may be on stronger ground dealing with audience responses/reception. Perhaps there are new manifestations of a reaction against fascism or corporatism/free market capitalism etc. which might in some ways mirror/reflect on the Popular Front politics of France in the 1930s? A discourse which allowed/encouraged that reflection might be served by the responses to Le Havre?


      • Keith Hussein

        Thanks for that Roy. I should have made it clear that I meant a renewed commitment to leftist ideas in the wake of a new globalised politics, and that rather the film draws on some of the strategies of the PF films – it is this which underpins it’s nostalgia – look at the space the traditional cafe-bar provides for collective action – then there is the concert which has things to say about the role of the artist in a bourgoise society. I also like how the Prefect’s ‘disembodied’ voice hints toward an abstract totalised reality based on these new global politics (figured as sarkozy’s policy toward the sans papiers) set against the fragmented local struggle of the characters.

        I’m with you that the film is essentially humanist rather than radical/political, though I’d argue that its use of this nostalgia in its mise en scene pushes it toward the use of political aesthetic ideas. Monet’s final action of allowing Idrissa to go free also seems to straddle this humanist/political dialectic.

        Anyway, your reply has helped me to think through some of these ideas.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.