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on Oct 19, 2011

In The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, published in 2003, critic and film historian David Thomson ends his favorable entry on Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki by noting that the Helsinki-based auteur might gain some edge if “his sardonic eye turned to politics.” It’s hard to imagine what a political film by Kaurismäki might look like, given how masterfully he has balanced deadpan humor and dour heartbreak in his wry tales of social estrangement among the working classes; films like The Match Factory Girl and Ariel feel more like poetic, strangely poignant chamber works. But now, at least in spirit, we have one. Kaurismäki’s latest comic fable, Le Havre, which won the FIPRESCI prize at Cannes in May and is Finland’s official Oscar entry, channels some of Europe’s not-so-welcoming attitudes toward newly arrived immigrants and transforms the conflict into an amiably humanistic fairy tale resonating with goodwill.

Septuagenarian Marcel Marx (André Wilms), a former artist, lives with his wife Arletty (Kaurismäki regular Kati Outinen) in the titular French port city where he makes a bare living shining shoes at the train station and frequents a neighborhood bar patronized by shiftless, long-haired men. Nearby, port authorities pry open a storage container on the docks and discover a group of Gabonese immigrants hiding inside, apparently bound for Britain. One of them, a boy named Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), escapes mustachioed police inspector Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) and crosses paths with Marcel, who hospitably takes him in and then attempts to locate his family in London. When Monet begins to suspect the elder man is illegally housing Idrissa, Marcel enlists the help of neighborhood acquaintances and shopkeepers to shield the boy until he can make arrangements for his safe passage to England. Meanwhile, Arletty is diagnosed with a terminal illness after some routine hospital tests but decides not to tell her husband, hoping for the best. Slight in design but emotionally potent, Le Havre carries all of Kaurismäki’s quirky trademarks: mordant one-liners and mannered acting, absurd exchanges and static shots of comically immobile characters reacting impassively to extraordinary occurrences. But this time, the sadsack aura of the Kaurismäki oeuvre gives way to a cheerier vision of collective dignity and social justice that points toward a possible future, even though it lives, for the moment at least, purely in the director’s imagination.

Filmmaker corresponded with Kaurismäki via e-mail about French cinema, Finnish writers, the plight of refugees, and why John Wayne caught a lucky break from Ford and Hawks. Le Havre opens Friday at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and IFC Center in New York.

Filmmaker: Le Havre grew out of your concern that the problem of refugees attempting to seek safe haven in EU countries has not been soundly addressed. What spurred your decision to shoot the film in France?

Kaurismäki: Logically it should have been a Mediterranean town since most of the refugees from Africa land to Greece, Italy, and Spain. But since logic has nothing to do with cinema I picked Le Havre after driving all the coast from Genoa to the Belgium border. The refugee problem (and the shame of their disgraceful treatment) is all European and it doesn’t really matter in which country the film is shot in.

Filmmaker: Did you make the film partly in hopes that it would have a deeper resonance in Continental Europe, perhaps pricking the conscience of viewers in France, Germany, Austria?

Kaurismäki: I never think of audience when I shoot a film. Not because I wouldn’t be interested but because my experience tells me it is not worthwhile. Anyhow, it is clear that very few refugees are desperate or unlucky enough to end up in Finland.

Filmmaker: One possible idea advanced by Le Havre concerns how the health of a society depends on its attitudes toward immigrants, displaced persons and other so-called undesirables. Was this the starting point when you first outlined the tale?

Kaurismäki: Now when you mention it that seems to be one way to see the film, but this goes to the side of analysis, which is not my hobby. While writing there is no time and afterwards there is no sense, because nothing can be changed anymore.

Filmmaker: What was the process that led you to the characters?

Kaurismäki: My method is very simple: when I get the basic idea of the story, meaning the main character and his “problem,” I just forget the whole thing for about three months and after that print it out over a long weekend. Meanwhile, the subconscious has (hopefully) done the job. I invent the characters while writing. In the case of Le Havre it took me a long time to find the profession of the protagonist but it came easily when I got my shoes polished in Portugal. The man was surprised by his 20 Euros tip.

Filmmaker: Le Havre unfolds like a fairy tale – life as we might wish it to be – putting an imaginative, hopeful spin on Idrissa’s fate as the story resolves. What accounts for the optimism of the film?

Kaurismäki: The whole refugee-business is a miserable thing with too many sad endings in real life. So a fiction film dealing with that needs minimum two happy endings to make some kind of balance.

Filmmaker: You’ve always had an affinity for the working class, as well as outcasts, losers, drifters, and loners. Instead of the sentimentalism we might find in humanistic films of the past or the gritty sincerity of today’s social realists, films like The Match Factory Girl or Drifting Clouds approach things from the standpoint of absurdity. Do your films reflect a distinctly existential worldview that you would claim as your own?

Kaurismäki: Since I´m a 100 percent auteur it is most probable that my films reflect my humor and the way I see society and human relationships.

Filmmaker: Characteristically, your films are dour and light-hearted in equal measure: Is the comic register advantageous for touching an audience emotionally or is it just your natural mode?

Kaurismäki: I said earlier that I don’t think of audience while shooting and it is true, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t make the films for spectators. A director who can’t manipulate a spectator’s feelings and make him/her laugh or be afraid should change his or her profession. The manipulation is what people are paying for when they go to cinema.

Filmmaker: Your first film, Crime and Punishment, was an earnest adaptation of Dostoyevsky. With Calamari Union, you began to favor elements that have defined your work since: deadpan humor, minimal dialogue, mannered acting styles. What brought about the transition? How did you find your voice?

Kaurismäki: I left humor away from Crime and Punishment partly because the book didn’t have any and partly because the adaptation itself was complicated enough. I regretted that later and maybe that is a reason why my Hamlet some years later was all but serious. Before the Dostoyevsky film I wrote two films which [my brother] Mika [Kaurismäki] directed and already in them I created the dialogue style I’m blamed for.

Filmmaker: Did your early work with Mika influence your sensibilities in some way?

Kaurismäki: The early films were my screenplays directed by Mika. This gave an illusion of a common style, which never existed.

Filmmaker: Little Bob’s sequence in Le Havre was one of my favorites, and is part of a lineage of live musical performances in your films (Joe Strummer, the Franks, Leningrad Cowboys). What does your obvious passion for the sounds and styles of early American rock and rockabilly stem from?

Kaurismäki: All the Finnish youngsters born in late ’50s or early ’60s got American and English blues, rhythm and blues and rock’n’roll from their mother´s milk.

Filmmaker: Juha was a silent black-and-white film harkening back to the days of early cinema, and I Hired a Contract Killer nodded to the heyday of noir. Le Havre is chock-a-block with references to Melville and Clouzot, especially via the character played by Jean-Pierre Darroussin. Beyond homage, are these references perhaps a deeper means of connecting cinema past and present, at least when the story demands it?

Kaurismäki: I certainly hope so. My “style” — if it exists — is certainly more near Tati than Melville, but I wanted at least to have one character of both plus some Clouzot, Carné, Renoir etc., with a touch of French postwar neorealism plus this and that but just to have these references and tiny homages there, not really to be noticed. The director, however, whom I think more and more [about] nowadays is Charles Chaplin.

Filmmaker: I know you are a voracious reader and that your cinematic interests encompass everyone from Jean Vigo to Michael Powell, Melville to Ozu. Are there equivalent analogues for you in Finnish art, literature, film?

Kaurismäki: Even though Finland is a small country in many ways the literature has always been on a high level; Aleksis Kivi, Eino Leino, Juhani Aho, Pentti Haanpää, Mika Waltari, Marko Tapio, Hannu Salama, to mention some. There were also excellent painters in the earlier part of the 20th Century.

Filmmaker: What does Timo Salminen, your longtime cinematographer, contribute to your overall artistic vision?

Kaurismäki: I make the storytelling and frame the pictures, but Timo is almost totally free in lighting. But since we have worked together 30 years now there is no reason to even whistle anymore. The cooperation is quite automatic.

Filmmaker: Godard famously said that mobile camera shots implied a moral choice. Would you say the reverse is true?

Kaurismäki: He also said that the chair you are sitting on is political. For me it is just a chair and some stories benefit from a moving camera and some (like Tokyo Story) don’t.

Filmmaker: Could you give me a better sense of why working in 35mm and what you’ve called “deep screen space” is an absolute for you, and why even toying with new digital technologies holds no appeal?

Kaurismäki: I´m old enough to die with my boots on.

Filmmaker: Kati Outinen has a smaller role in Le Havre, but she’s been featured in so much of your work, often brilliantly playing a downtrodden but sympathetic type. Why does she continue to be a source of inspiration?

Kaurismäki: If they are good why change? Same goes with the whole crew. I don’t know if John Wayne was of any inspiration to Ford or Hawks but still they continued using him even though he was ugly as hell.

Filmmaker: When you consider your body of work on its own — not necessarily as it measures against the cinema closest to your heart — what’s your assessment?

Kaurismäki: Never look back.


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