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Since the early 1980s, Finnish auteur Aki Kauris- maki has been mining his own peculiar seam and achieving a quiet miracle — making films which gladden the heart the most when they are at their most unflappably lugubrious. Le Havre essentially offers us the director’s usual menu — poker-faced acting, weatherbeaten faces, political compassion, hyper-stylised staging and decrepit bar-room inte- riors lit con amore. But there is something fresh in this new film, which sees the Finn fully venting his Francophilia for the first time since 1991’s The Bohemian Life. Taking on both the Gallic cinema tradition and

a current French political issue, Kaurismaki works with a superb Franco-Finnish cast to bring us a typically modest but shining French-language gem which sees him on magnificent form after the slight dip of 2006’s Lights In The Dusk. Francoph- one audiences will be especially tickled, but Akiphiles worldwide will be in heaven. The opening shots set the tone — a succession

of laconic sound and sight gags, establishing a world in which sinister figures wear trenchcoats and fedoras. We are somewhere between real modern France and the stylised noir world of Kaurismaki’s beloved Jean-Pierre Melville. Protagonist Marcel Marx (veteran Wilms) is a

philosophical former artist in the northern French port of the title, trying to eke a living as a shoe- shine man in a world where everyone wears train- ers. He lives in impoverished happiness with wife


Fin-Fr-Ger. 2010. 93mins Director/screenplay/ producer Aki Kaurismaki Production companies Sputnik, Pyramide Productions, Pandora Film International sales The Match Factory, Cinematography Timo Salminen Production designer Wouter Zoon Editor Timo Linnasalo Main cast André Wilms, Kati Outinen, Evelyne Didi, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Blondin Miguel, Elina Salo, Jean- Pierre Léaud

Arletty (Outinen) in a working-class neighbour- hood seemingly left over from a Marcel Carné film, with a faithful neighbour in the shape of big- hearted boulangere Yvette (Didi). While Arletty is away in hospital — unknown to

Marcel, her condition is incurable — the shoe- shiner befriends Idrissa (Miguel), a young African immigrant on the run from police; the film is set against the background of the French authorities’ controversial and drastic closure of the refugee camp known as ‘Le Jungle’, which is glimpsed in TV coverage. Marcel offers Idrissa shelter with himself and

his faithful mutt (played by Laika, the fifth gener- ation in a canine dynasty of Kaurismaki regulars), and tries to find a way to reunite young man with his mother, who lives in London. The very simple plot involves Marcel trying to

raise money for Idrissa’s escape — which he does by arranging a charity gig by antique French rocker Roberto Piazza, aka Little Bob. Meanwhile, a malevolent neighbour (the legendary Léaud) has snitched to the authorities, but luckily Inspector Monet (Darroussin), the cop in charge of bringing in Idrissa, conceals a warm heart under his hard- bitten, taciturn exterior. Together, Wilms and Darroussin bring the fresh-

est new notes to Kaurismaki’s world. Wilms, at one point making a nod to his role in The Bohemian Life, adds an impish courteousness to the film’s otherwise uninflected acting style, while Darrous- sin’s hangdog features and world-weary sangfroid are a sublime fit for the Kaurismaki universe. When Darroussin walks into a bar holding a pine- apple, it is one of those moments of priceless Tati- esque comedy which defy explanation.

Highlighting the political themes that have

been foremost in Kaurismaki’s hard-times fiction at least since 1996’s Drifting Clouds, the director adds a new quasi-documentary element to his cin- ema, filming one sequence at what appears to be a genuine refugee detainment centre. The film hits a delicate balance between real-

world exteriors and stylised, studio-bound scenes, notably the spit-and-sawdust bar frequented by a memorable variety of grizzled sailors (presumably real dockside faces). The director’s regular cinematographer, Timo

Salminen, shoots with meticulous style, bringing an almost comic-strip economy both to exteriors and to the sets in Kaurismaki’s favourite muted blue and red. The handling of anachronism is as brilliant as

ever, and it is typical of the director’s sour attitude to modernity that the one outright baddie (Léaud’s informer) is the only character who owns a mobile phone. Regular faces Kati Outinen and Elina Salo

bring a laconic tenderness to their roles, and new- comer Blondin Miguel has a solemn appeal. French comedy legend Pierre Etaix contributes a sympathetic cameo, and as ever, Laika is the best- lit dog in European cinema. The music is a typical Kaurismaki mix, including tangos, blues and mel- odrama-redolent selections from Finnish com- poser Einojuhani Rautavaara — but some audiences may balk at the director indulging his taste for mediocre French rock, in the shape of a live and lukewarm performance by Little Bob.

SCREEN SCORE ★★★ May 18, 2011 Screen International at the Cannes Film Festival 13 n

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