ONE SCENE | Le Havre


Aki Kaurismäki has been known to stop shooting moments into a scene to have a wall repainted a subtly different shade of the same colour. He’s an instinctive and rigorous stylist for whom each prop, each play of light, and each square inch of set have their precise role to play. As a result, a film like Le Havre evokes an entirely distinctive world, with a colour palette of faded blues and muddy greens, a penchant for 1970s rock’n’roll, and an unshakable deadpan sensibility. 

It’s disconcerting, then, when this perfectly wrought illusion is interrupted by what appears to be an entirely real newscast. In Marcel’s usual haunt Chez Claire, a cosy bar wryly replete with French tropes, a TV shows refugee camps being razed – the real raids on Calais camps in 2009. On screen, the clothes aren’t in keeping with the style brief; the language of the reporter isn’t arch or ironic; the camera is wobbling erratically instead of panning gracefully. Perhaps most noticeably, the physical confrontations between police and refugees are real and brutal, while everywhere else the film turns coyly away from violence.

The news report forms a blip on the film’s assured surface whose effects are hard to resolve. It seems realer than real, like a waking dream, both anchoring the film in our world and time and accentuating its evident distinctions from it (only one character uses a mobile phone, and it’s a villain). Ultimately, though, its stark inclusion serves to reinforce the plausibility of the film’s heightened world and even its salience in contending with real-world situations. The newscast doesn’t show up Kaurismäki’s style as a distastefully fanciful depiction of the plight of refugees (neither do the newspapers, whose headlines are consistently feverish). Instead, the film’s unapologetically simple, warm world feels articulate and important by contrast: it is content with quietness – and kindness – in place of the noisy supposed authority of news reporting. The critic James Wood notes that Chekov enjoyed reading odd lines aloud from the newspaper. He suggests that the pleasure that habit entailed, perhaps akin to Kaurismäki’s in this gnomic film, was in observing how “a newspaper imagines that it has explained a story when all it has done is told one”.


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