Today: April 22, 2024
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Le Havre

‘Give me your tired, your poor

Give me your
tired, your poor,
your
huddled masses,’ reads Emma Lazarus’ sonnet of hospitality on the Statue of
Liberty, a gift from the French in celebration of American liberty.
But in
espousing liberté, egalité and fraternité to the rest of the globe, our Gallic
cousins gradually neglected to keep their own house in order, leading to racial
tensions, increasing political clout for the far right and a hard-line approach
to refugees.

Aki Kaurismaki’s Le Havre, released
on Friday 6th April, is a well-intentioned response to the treatment
of refugees within France but, with a meandering and whimsical narrative, never
comes too close to suggesting a solution.

Our reluctant hero Marcel Marx (André
Wilms
) is a former artist and Bohemian, contentedly edging towards old age
on the Normandy coast and flitting between shoe-shining, sipping wine in his
local and sitting in comfortable silence with his doting wife Arletty (Kati Outinen).

When fate throws a young African refugee (Blondin
Miguel
) into Marcel’s life, the septuagenarian enlists the local community
in a bid to help his new friend Idrissa escape the clutches of the gendarmes
and find his way to meet his mother in East London. But with Arletty’s health
failing and a ruthless bloodhound of the law (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) on his trail, the odds aren’t in Marcel’s
favour…

Kaurismaki’s premise is one ripe with possibility, both for nail-biting
sequences of suspense as the gendarmes close in on Marcel’s new houseguest but
also heart-rending nods to familial ties and the possibility of losing a new
friend. Or so one might imagine.

Unfortunately, a sluggish plot, loose editing and Kaurismaki’s staid visuals
and lifeless direction remove almost all of the tension and heart from a story
that should linger as long in the memory as immigrant tales like Jim Sheridan’s In America, Stephen Frears
Dirty Pretty Things and Thomas McCarthy’s The Visitor.

The stiff, near-expressionless acting of Wilms and Outinen may suit
Kaurismaki’s brand of modern-day absurdism but keeps the audience at a
distance, imbuing the film with a cold, experimental feel rather than giving
Idrissa’s plight or Arletty’s illness the gravitas they deserve.

Equally frustrating is Kaurismaki’s insistence on shoehorning a concert sequence
– and a bizarre, preliminary romantic scene with soaring strings and soft focus
– into the plot solely to acknowledge the musical heritage of Le Havre and give
ageing French musician Little Bob
some screen time.

There are some hints of political intent within the gently-unfurling tale, with
the refugees with whom Idrissa arrives in France labelled ‘the living dead’ by
police and oblique references to Kafka and the destroyed Sangatte migrant camp.
A close-up on a newspaper front page after Idrissa goes on the run, the
headline proclaiming ‘possible links to al-Qaeda’ will also raise a knowing
chuckle from Britons resigned to the sensationalism of our right-wing press.

Sadly, these are hints of the memorable and moving film that probably lies
within the humdrum tale Kaurismaki has fashioned. The director’s intent to
focus on the handling and impact of refugees in Europe is admirable but his
execution is more ponderous than profound.

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