Outside the gentrified humanism for ‘members only’ and the gated communities of meritocracy, in the suburbs of a neglected humanity is Le Havre, the latest film by Aki Kaurismäki.
When European stars could not fly yet they would sail to Hollywood from the port of Le Havre where ships full of glittering promises in first class, mediocrity in second, rats and misery in third, left for the American Dream. Escaping the horrors of Nazism, ‘rescued’ by the studios’ moguls looking for new spectacular flesh, the celebrities of tomorrow left their Jewish-German names behind in the Norman port, cleansed their selves in the Atlantic to become the stuff of dreams on other side of the ocean.
Louis B. Mayer met in London a fugitive Hedwig Maria Kiesler; from Le Havre they sailed to Hollywood where she became Hedy Lamarr. Kaurismäki meets in Le Havre a young refugee, Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), trying to reach his mother in London with his stowaway family locked in a cargo-container.
Hollywood narrated the stories of glamour and merciless success; Kaurismäki shelters in Le Havre the beaten ones, those who live in the shadow of the stars, possess none of their brilliance but have the elegant dignity of desperate lives. The film reclaims an almost intolerable humanity, hard to conceive in a world where mutual aid and solidarity are considered dangerous and non-strategic weaknesses in the marketplace of social relations.
Le Havre is a tale of selfless reciprocity, ‘anyhow unrealistic’ as the director himself sardonically remarked, coming at a time when fraternité has become an alien concept indeed. And alien too is the ‘illegal’ kid hunted down by the authorities and a Melvillean inspector with a soft spot for pineapples. Marcel Marx (André Wilms), a shoeshine whose wife is in hospital with a terminal cancer, meets, befriends and helps the young Idrissa to reach his mother in London where she works in a Chinese laundrette.
As soon as Mr. Marx infringes the law to assist Idrissa in his (in)human quest, the community of lost souls unites in solidarity around the unlawful cause (in France to shelter an illegal migrant is punishable by law). In spite of Marcel’s many debts, the greengrocer offers him food free of charge aware of his new ‘guest’ while fellow Vietnamese-with-Chinese-passport shoeshine helps him organise a ‘trendy’ fundraising concert. In this epic miniature of collective defiance and surreal altruism not even the gloomy inspector is immune to the infectious munificence sweeping the imaginary harbour…
The scraped palette of primary colours, as primary as the needs driving the characters, delivers the story from the insincere burden of realism to hand it back over to the cruel beauty of life. Using the pastel colours and candid devices of fairy-telling, Kaurismäki imagines a utopian island uncontaminated by the toxic sludge of ‘civilised’ living, graced by a soave breeze of disenchanted hope.
By the end of the film a miracle does really happen, the tritest ending one could possibly imagine sublimates into sheer poetry, gracefully and devastatingly touching. A warm-hearted and delicate illusion rivalling the purity of a Charlie Chaplin.
The director lives in symbiosis with his characters and shares with them the same disenchantment, halfway between resignation and contempt, towards a predatory society whose spiritual essence is that of profit.
One only fears that this immaculate fairytale of working class solidarity is indeed out of time, as in both utterly removed from our daily cynicism and coming too late to affect its evil banality. There is a deeply nostalgic aftertaste in Le Havre, as if all that referencing to the failed dream of Communism (from the protagonist’s surname to his dog’s name, Laika, passing by Sputnik productions) was more of an epitaph than a wish.
Celluloid Liberation Front is a multi-use(r) name, an “open reputation” informally adopted and shared by a desiring multitude of insurgent cinephiles, transmedial terrorists, aesthetic dynamyters and random deviants. For reasons that remain unknown, the name was borrowed from a collective of anti-imperialist blind filmmakers from the Cayman Islands. Twitter feed here.