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Vol. 11, No. 1, 2012
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Robert J. Lewis
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4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days
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Before Tomorrow
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Necessities of Life
For a Moment of Freedom
Blood River
By the Will of Genghis Kahn
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Into Eternity
When We Leave

Aki Kaurismäki

Aki Kaurismäki


reviewed by


Le Havre played at Montreal's 2011 Cinémania Film Festival. Ron Wilkinson, who writes for, gave the film 3.0 out of 4. For festival ratings, click HERE.

With a forlorn whine, a shipping container recently brought ashore in the eponymous port city of Le Havre is forced open. We are greeted by the wearied, frightened faces of a group of undocumented African immigrants who have been living inside for days on end. Time stops for a moment, and director Aki Kaurismäki lets the monstrous state of affairs sink in. The startled Le Havre - Aki Kaurismäki refugees and awestruck members of the police tactical unit forget themselves. The soundtrack begins to swell, and pre-adolescent Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) eventually gets it together enough to brazenly slip through the hands of the authorities. He escapes before the requisite level of fear and mistrust seeps back in and a heavily-armed officer prepares to shoot him, stopped only by the intervention of Monsieur Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), a police investigator.

That a group of immigrants from a sub-Saharan country should endure squalid conditions while in transit to another land is sadly not all that surprising; if the unvarnished horror comes as a bolt from the blue in this film, it is only because Kaurismäki treats most of life’s other ordeals with a lighter hand. The denizens of Le Havre pride themselves on a stiff-upper-lip approach to life, occasionally to an absurd extent. Aging bohemian Marcel Marx (André Wilms) is a prime example of this unflappable sort. He puts on an air of mild bemusement against the slings and arrows cruel fate throws at him, up to and including the increasing obsolescence of his shoe-shining business, creeping poverty and brazen acts of violence. When Marcel witnesses a murder in broad daylight, he doesn’t even seem to be in much of a hurry to scram before the cops pin it on him. This is the way it is and ever shall be, he implies with every word and action. And, perhaps, it’s not so bad?Le Havre - Aki Kaurismäki

It’s not long before Marcel’s imperturbable hull is buffeted by savage gales. His wife, Arletty (Kati Outinen), is stricken with what will likely be a fatal illness. Marcel is shaken, even as the more grim details of his wife’s ailment are kept from him. It is generally agreed that his life will fall apart without her. During Arletty’s extended hospital stay, Marcel takes Idrissa under his wing (the two have since met in a waterlogged scene under a dock), putting himself at no small risk in order to hide his young friend from the police and help him get to his intended destination of London.

It is easy to identify Marcel as a newly-fledged hero, as many of his peers do in the film. The townspeople rally to his cause: where before his outstanding debts made him persona non grata with the local grocers, food is now offered up to him and to Idrissa free of charge. Neighbours are more than willing to take Idrissa in for extended stays. A charity concert featuring Little Bob is organized at the drop of a hat. The transformation that Marcel undergoes within himself, though, is harder to catch. Wilms and Kaurismäki understand that a man such as Marcel would never consciously allow any exterior change to be exhibited for the world to see. Yet it is clear that, minute by minute, his former lassitude is being replaced by a growing sense of his own purpose.

Marcel’s transformation is largely a religious one. Many of his actions are cast as those of a minor modern-day saint performing small miracles and inspiring those around him to do the same. He often resembles a highly industrious, street smart holy fool, flouting society and undergoing great sacrifice to bring about positive change, though barely aware that his actions should be taken as anything out of the ordinary. He is one of the most fascinating characters I have seen in any recent film, due in large part to Wilms’ fiercely intelligent, engaging portrayal. Wilms makes the case for himself here as a great lost French film star, with a stately command often calling to mind the bygone presence of Jean Gabin.

Kaurismäki, though, offers Marcel up as a small-scale hero for our own time. Marcel can do only so much for the limited sphere in which he dwells, though it is surely a great deal, and what action he does take inspires conscientious and deeply humanitarian behaviour by those around him. Kaurismäki does not propose to be able to find a suitable destination for the human cargo of a rusted shipping container any more than he proposes to bake enough bread to feed those who would otherwise steal it. He does have a general prescription in mind, though: a continent dotted up and down its coasts with Marcel Marxes.

For review of Kauriskmäki's Man Without a Past, HERE.

For the ratings of 2011 Cinémania Film festival, HERE.


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