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Kaurismaki's 'Le Havre' serves up trademark wit - on a baguette

Director Aki Kaurismaki lights a cigarette during a news conference for the film "Le Havre" at the Cannes Film Festival on Tuesday.


Aki Kaurismaki slouched before the microphone and extracted a cigarette from his jacket pocket. While photographers snapped away, before his actual press conference started at Cannes on Tuesday, he leaned into the mike and said, "I understand that Johnny Depp has a film at the festival, which I hope to see because Johnny Depp is my hero."

With Kaurismaki, of course, it's never easy to unpeel the layers of irony and sincerity.

The quirky Johnny Depp, of movies such as Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man, seems like someone he could idolize. Jarmusch is essentially Kaurismaki's American spiritual cousin (he used Kaurismaki actors for his film Night on Earth). But it's unlikely the mordant Finnish filmmaker has any interest in a blockbuster like Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, the Depp film he pretended to have forgotten the name of.

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His own film, Le Havre, set in the French sea port of the same name, is his second feature in French. As a devotee of classic directors such as Jean-Pierre Melville and Robert Bresson, his sensibility may be Finnish with a Gallic twist. Le Havre is a characteristic Kaurismaki story - humorous, and compassionate toward the most socially vulnerable.

Typically his characters are also so taciturn it's like watching an entire cast doing Buster Keaton and Stan Laurel impressions. But in Le Havre, the characters get to talk more, often in what seems to be a parody of the French enthusiasm for disputation. For example, a couple of sailors in a bar:

"Where I come from in Alsace ..."

"Stop talking about Alsace!"

"There are very fine ducks ..."


Le Havre is the story of a gentlemanly shoe-shine man in his mid-60s named Marcel Marx (André Wilms), who decides to protect a young African refugee, Inrissa (Blondin Miguel), who has escaped from a ship's container hold. From time to time, Marcel has to ward off the snooping of police inspector Moet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), a figure like Claude Rains in Casablanca, until he decides to organize "a trendy rock concert" to raise money for the boy's passage to England.

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Meanwhile, Marcel's wife Arletty (Kaurismaki muse Kati Outinen) has to go to the hospital with what appears to be terminal cancer, though she tells her husband that it's "very extremely benign."

Kaurismaki said he has wanted to make a film about the treatment of illegal immigrants in Europe for some time, "and though I'm probably not the best person for it, nobody else seemed to want the job. But since I'm not a political or a documentary filmmaker, I decided to make a fairy tale."

He said he considered many seaports - along the coasts of Italy, Spain and Portugal - before settling on Le Havre, though the city, rebuilt after the Second World War, was too modern. "My camera hates modern architecture." Finally, he found an old quarter of the town that survived the war, and set his story there.

The director's understated style seems to have infected his French cast.

As Darroussin, explained, "Aki asked me to meet him for a drink and I did. He had a drink, and I had one and I tried to keep up. We agreed to start the film and he showed up with a very old camera, from 1974, which had belonged to Ingmar Bergman, so I asked if I could photograph it. We did one take, and then a second. That was it."

The hero of the story, Wilms (a veteran of France's venerated Comédie-Française state theatre), said he got the part for one reason: "I have a very long nose, which allows me to smoke in the shower. Working with Aki was very simple. I learned the script and then said them [the words] If more actors memorized their lines, the French cinema could save millions."

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Added Darroussin: "When you do these press conferences you try to think of something clever to say, so I thought of this the other night: Aki can produce a world out of one or two small objects. Other directors are given the world and produce one or two small objects."

Darrousin didn't specifically draw a comparison between Le Havre and movies about box-office pillaging pirates, but it was easy enough to connect the dots.


Le Havre

  • Written and directed by Aki Kaurismaki
  • Starring André Wilms, Kati Outinen and Jean-Pierre Daroussin

Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki's French-language feature, set in the seaside town of Le Havre, is one of Cannes' most purely enjoyable offerings this year. The story is simple: A poor shoe-shine man (André Wilms) inspires his neighbours to help out a young African refugee in escaping the law and getting to his relatives in London. At the same time, he contends with his stoically ill wife (Kati Outinen) and a dogged, eccentric detective (Jean-Pierre Daroussin). Set in narrow streets, dingy homes and tiny bars of the city that bears its name, the film's visual style offers an invigorating paradox: kitchen-sink realism treated with the care of a 1940s Hollywood movie set. With perfectly pitched acting and a script brimming with compassion and wit, Kaurismaki conveys his critique of social injustice without a hint of self-righteousness.

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About the Author
Film critic

Liam Lacey is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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