This is the final film in the trilogy about ‘losers’ from Finnish writer-director Aki Kaurismäki following Drifting Clouds (1996) and The Man Without a Past (2002). In some ways it might be the darkest of the three, especially if you find ‘miserable’ characters hard to follow. On the other hand, this is perhaps the ‘purest’ downbeat character you are likely to meet. Another way to think of the trilogy is as narratives successively about joblessness, homelessness and here loneliness. Seppo Koistinen (Janne Hyytiäinen) barely raises a smile and takes every disaster that befalls him on the chin. He doesn’t betray anyone (when perhaps, for the good of the society, he should) and he retains an iron determination to ‘make it’ eventually. Buster Keaton’s screen persona comes to mind – which isn’t so surprising in the world of Kaurismäki narratives. But in the Press Notes Kaurismäki refers to a ‘Chaplinesque’ character.
Koistinen (as most people call him, if they can remember his name at all) lives in a bare apartment close to the liminal space that is the Helsinki docklands. He works nights as a security guard for a company covering a major shopping mall. On his way home he stops at a late night food stall close to the water where he passes a few words with the woman who runs it. He has no friends and his work ‘colleagues’ ignore him. Occasionally he buys a vodka or a coffee in a bar and drinks it alone. But he has been spotted by a gangster who sends his ‘moll’ Mirja (Maria Järvenhelmi) to seduce Koistinen and to use him to get the necessary information to enable a robbery. The gangster knows that it will be possible to frame Koistinen for the robbery and that he won’t tell the police about the girl and will accept his own guilt. All this comes to pass and the unrelenting awfulness is only relieved by a small attempted good deed which Koistinen carries out – and which of course backfires on him. This deed will not, however, be ignored and will save him in the end. In Kaurismäki’s films (or at least in the ones I’ve seen), there are still pockets of human feeling whatever the attempts of late capitalism to destroy them all. Kaurismäki refers to himself in this way:
Luckily for him, the film’s author has a reputation as a kindhearted old man, so hopefully a spark of hope will light up the final scene.
Kaurismäki’s films have found audiences around the world and generated critical acclaim, not because of the events they portray or even the ideas they explore (though both are important in his other films). Instead it is the style and the overall ‘feel’ of the presentation that is important and what this conveys is a dry wit and a deep humanism. Sometimes this can evoke humour from the absurdist situations which confront the protagonist – in this trilogy the ‘loser’ character. I must confess that in this particular film I experienced fewer comic moments but I still found the narrative oddly gripping. Kaurismäki usually has a working-class male as his lead and the female characters are supporting roles, even if sometimes the drivers of the narratives. In this film there are the two women, one leading Koistinen astray, the other trying to save him.
The film is as usual quite short for a feature at 78 minutes and I wanted to know more about both women. Partly, the mystery of the women is buried in the generic elements of the narrative. This is Kaurismäki’s film noir and I kept thinking of the central character in terms of an Elisha Cook figure – the poor sap who wouldn’t make it to the end of the story. But much more likely, this is Kaurismäki in a French study, part poetic realism from the 1930s and part Jean-Pierre Melville. These references emerge much more strongly in the director’s next film Le Havre. Here Koistinen might be a role for Jean Gabin, albeit stripped of his energy. I guess that in Janne Hyytiäinen there is also something of Melville’s Alain Delon, but again stripped of vitality.
Music is always essential in Kaurismäki’s films and this film has a particularly strong soundtrack including two songs by Carlos Gardel. Born in France but taken to Argentina as an infant he was one of the most important ‘tango singers’ whose career had a tragic and almost rock ‘n roll ending when he was killed in a plane crash at the height of his powers in 1935. Kaurismäki is obviously taken by tango and I’ve realised that it fits his frequent dockside location being developed in the dockside bars of Argentina and Uruguay. There are also three songs by the Swedish tenor Jussi Björling (1911-1960), all from Puccini’s operas. One is from The Girl of the Golden West and the others from Tosca and Manon Lescaut. The French singer Fred Gouin contributes a 1928 song ‘Les temps des cerises’, possibly also a Japanese reference to ‘cherry blossom time’? (Kaurismäki has a real passion for Japanese culture.) The remainder of the soundtrack offers a selection of later Finnish recordings. I wish I knew more about music – surely someone has studied Kaurismäki’s choices? He includes elements of Finnish culture in his films but often in quite subtle ways. In this film we get to see a prison and I’m always struck by how much more civilised (and effective) prisons seem to be in Nordic countries compared to the US, UK or France.
Out of the four most recent Kaurismäki films this is perhaps the most ‘contained’ story. It does fit into a development of an overall narrative, however. Janne Hyytiäinen appeared at the end of The Man Without a Past and the young Black boy who appears in this film (with the dog – there is a dog in all four recent films) points towards what will happen in Le Havre. I think I’m ready now to work back through some of Kaurismäki’s films in the 1990s.
I was pleased to finally catch the latest film from Aki Kaurismäki in cinemas. I knew I would like it and indeed I spent 100 joyful minutes in the splendid Hebden Bridge Picture House relishing every moment. Looking back I see that I spelt out Kaurismäki’s unique approach in detail in relation to Le Havre (2011). Nothing has changed. The Other Side of Hope returns us to Helsinki and the docks where a man emerges from a pile of coal in the hold of a ship and walks purposefully into the city. This is Khaled (Sherwan Haji), a young Syrian who has made his way across Europe, but who has lost his sister at a border crossing in Serbia. Running in parallel is a second story about a Finnish man who leaves his wedding ring with a woman (is this his wife?) and climbs into his 1950s American-style car for his rounds as a shirt salesman. We know very well that these two men will meet and that there will be bouts of live music from a variety of performers plus some strange encounters with officialdom, retail staff and others – everything shot in the lighting and colour palettes of 1950s cinema – although this time I also thought about the exquisite production design and mise en scène of Roy Andersson with its more drab palette but similar flat feel.
I don’t know quite why Kaurismäki’s films work quite so well but much of the appeal is the inherent ‘goodness’ of the characters, even when they behave ‘badly’. Khaled is a young man, but the shirt salesman Wikström is just into his 60s. Like many of the older characters, Wikström is not movie star handsome but he is allowed to be smart (but not too smart) in the way he organises things. He eventually leaves his job, wins some money and buys a run-down restaurant business. Some of the funniest scenes are those showing his attempts to ‘re-brand’ the business, including as a sushi restaurant. Here Kaurismäki gently mocks the idea of appropriating cultural identities.
Kaurismäki’s characters fall neatly into three types. The villains are simply villainous (here mainly defined as racist thugs). The officials are efficient (without being super-efficient) and apply the rules of the system fairly. ‘Ordinary’ people (less important officials, workers and Kaurismäki’s usual group of marginal people living rough) are usually helpful to the Khaleds of this world, recognising the need for working-class solidarity. If only real life was like this. Yet Kaurismäki is right to think that by presenting his absurdist images of a tolerant, accepting host country, he is performing a service for audiences in countries like the UK where a handful of Syrian refugees seems like the limit (but I’m proud to live in one of the cities that has taken a significant number). In a Guardian interview he refers to the ‘shame’ of Europe’s response to the refugee crisis, noting how Brexit will make things worse (too right). But he seems tired of making films and trying to keep up with changing technologies. I hope he gets over this and makes many more films that raise spirits. I wish he felt he could make another film in the UK (he made I Hired a Contract Killer in 1990 in the UK). We certainly need his talents and humanist commitment.
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.
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.