Le Havre, by Aki Kaurismaki

By Fernando Ganzo

(leer en español)

I don’t know if Le Havre is such a warm film because the air of Northern France becomes Kaurismäki or if it is because the precision and the love for simple but forgotten things practiced by the finn becomes french cinema. It is true that Normandy borders contribute to the possibility of a story with every melodramatic element for sale, but Kaurismäki gives many things in return, to begin with, a story about people that don’t exist, a vital subject about french reality that they themselves don’t know how to deal with, or most likely, they don’t deal with it. Inmigrants, regular excentrics from the pubs at the harbor, everyone for himself, bootblacks who have to count their money inside the restaurant to decide what they are going to pay...

To recover everything that, too frequently, has been left aside when it has not been covered by that long and moth-eaten blanket of realism or ‘left-wing fiction’, that blanket with wich sometimes we cover our heads but leave our feet uncovered.

In the second place, a beautiful concept of the supporting character, of the peculiar actor. For many years, supporting actors had cult status for the audience. Many didn’t know their names, but their presence sometimes surpassed the impact of the famous stars in the memory of the audience, and their faces could be recognised everytime they appeared in another film. It was something almost familiar. Those were the years when nobody knew what a reverse shot was, but, in the case of France, they could describe the peculiar features of Albert Michel or Saturnin Fabre. And this is revived here, without drowning in a flood of nostalgia. On the contrary, we take a breath of fresh air everytime that the baker, the greengrocer, the waitress or the police inspector appear. They are not necessarily unusual actors, but they give something unusual to the characters.

When somebody accepts to go all the way with that exchange between what you shoot, with whom you shoot, and where you shoot it, everything that comes out of it will be a reward. The atmosphere and light of the film, with it’s sets illuminated as we remember the Théâtre des Matières by Biette, and populated by mysterious and hilarious characters that are “so Kaurismäki” and at the same time so peculiar, because they are the only way out of the spot in which he puts himself: the protagonist of the story, Marcel, an old bootblack who has already lived so many lives, is forced to neglect his wife, from nordic origins, to take care of the strange visitor of Le Havre, the only one who seems to fit in that club of weirdos: a young illegal inmigrant. Kaurismäki is then forced to abandon that which he has filmed the most throughout his life (Kati Outinen, who plays the wife), to observe what he has filmed the least (a black person). And that’s precisely why every encounter with the kid stops the story to let us see the characters staring at each other. That’s precisely why every appearance by Outinen is full of a peculiar emotion, as if it was materialized in her something that is not there anymore, something similar to what Sonia Saviange conveyed, but adding to it an excentric and tender silence. What a strange way cinema had to take to give us again a creature like that.

Among the things Marcel has to do to help the kid is to manage to reconcile the old rocker Little Bob with his girlfriend Nanni, who aren’t on speaking terms since they argued about the apple tree in their garden (isn’t that idea enough reason to make you want to wach the film?). Missions like that one are what set in motion the story. And the characters move forward according to what they can eat and drink: Jean-Pierre Léaud, Pierre Étaix, Luce Vigo or a dog... in a meeting point of so different things there is room for every uncontrolled gesture by an actor or by the director, and everything goes on giving de impression of being absolutely precise, but also by any member of the audience: to get out of the film with a yearn for shooting something.

Annex: the three-headed character

A character from a movie is a shapeless thing. A monster. It is a word that we use but which represents something with vague or absurd borders. Nobody knows what a character is: if it is a body that we want to shoot, an idea that impels us to write, or a gesture that we decide to edit. It is all of this and nothing at all. Characters have three heads: that of the director, the character and the actor. Some filmakers only let us see their heads, preventing the miracle, but sometimes it even manages to escape from them. The most beautiful moment in Hors Satan, by Dumont –and even if the rest of the film doesn’t want it- is when the protagonist actress, a beginner from whose face Dumont pulls out the same thing that he pulled out of Julie Sokolowski, kisses her mother. Her face, stiff, as if it was neglected to her to show what sustains the film, is liberated for a few frames, the time her gaze, confused, stares at no place. That little offense illuminates the dirty swamp in which his director wanted to sink her. In Corpo Celeste (by Alice Rohrwacher), that organized and repeated story turns into a film because it’s actors aren’t afraid of exposing their doubts. Thanks to that, when humour is introduced the film doesn’t fall to pieces. It comes, embraces the sequence, and lets it free to go forward, without hurting anyone. Even allowing it to be hilarious.

Annex II: impure films

Going on with that monster that is the character, wanting to tame it is a problem. It demands being more skilled than we belief ourselves to be. Lars von Trier, the melancholic nordic that masturbates himself with the images of the history of cinema, suffers the consequences of what it is to make an impure film. An impure film is that in which one thing goes one way and other things go another. When they cross their paths, those film mercenaries can bring out the most beautiful things. When they don’t, they leave us shaking our heads. Melancholia is so full of the hatred with which von Trier has accustomed himself to tame his characters, that he is not able to let us wish the end of the world because of the mysterious and magnetic chaos of Kirsten Dunst (Only her, the most powerful feminine presence of American cinema nowadays, almost teaches von Trier what a character is), but even her, responsible of not accepting happiness, has to be a spoiled child, has to deserve to die. It is the best of his latest films, but he manages to waste it away and to reduce it to the ashes of vulgarity, unnable to accept that it could be another different than himself that makes us shiver. Von Trier only wants to be loved.

For totally different reasons, Hanezu is another impure film, the new film by Kawase, although all of his fiction films are. There is always a kind of contempt for the writing and the mise en scène, elements that are put here or there, waiting to fall in it’s right place. A contempt in which the characters remain lost, waiting for something to happen. When it happens (and she has managed to make it happen very often – since Hotaru and it’s strippers in the public fountain), when those diverging lines suddenly cross their paths, something similar to a miracle takes place, a celebration. When it doesn’t happen, we remain outside, surprised, observing something that seems to be beautiful.

Translated from Spanish by Juan M. Pastora.