Director: Aki Kaurismäki
AS defined by William S Burroughs, the “Johnson Family” – a term he discovered in one of the favourite books of his childhood, Jack Black’s 1926 hobo/burglar-memoir You Can’t Win – is not, as it may sound, a network of relatives, but rather “a code of conduct.
“To say someone is a Johnson means he keeps his word and honors his obligations. He’s a good man to do business with and a good man to have on your team. He is not a malicious, snooping, interfering, self righteous, trouble-making person… You get to know a Johnson when you see one… And sometimes you don’t see the Johnson. I remember a friend of mine asked someone to send him a hash cake from France. Well the asshole put it in a cheap envelope with no wrapping and it cut through the envelope. But some Johnson had put it back in and sealed the envelope with tape.” (The Johnson Family, from The Adding Machine – Collected Essays.)
In the light of Aki Kaurismäki’s 16th feature-film as writer-director, one is tempted to ponder whether the Johnson in question resided in perhaps came from Le Havre, the rough-edged, WW2-ravaged Normandy port-city which provides the 55-year-old Finnish veteran with his title and his setting. As shown in Le Havre, Le Havre is a veritable nest – or nid - of Johnsons: cash-strapped but dignified and decent working-class folk keen to help out whoever passes through and needs their assistance.
Such as Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), an angelic, studious west African lad in (illegal) transit to London whose journey is inadvertently truncated in Southampton’s twin-city. His fellow-travellers are seized by security forces and whisked off to refugee camps around France – we see TV footage of riots at Sangatte – as a prelude to deportation. Idrissa is considerably more fortunate, ending up in the care of ageing shoeshiner Marcel (André Wilms) who lives a simple but blissful existence in a down-at-heel but cosy corner of town with his wife Arletty (Kati Outinen). Idrissa’s arrival coincides with a domestic crisis: Arletty is diagnosed with cancer, which although it initially seems “extremely benign”, quickly develops into a life-threatening condition…
Le Havre, by contrast, is “extremely benign” pretty much throughout, a cautiously optimistic vision of a multi-cultural, strangely timeless France that some may dismiss as a naive, rose-tinted fable, but which Kaurismäki delivers with disarming simplicity, conviction and wry humour. And while Le Havre might still on this evidence deserve its full original name – ‘The Harbour of Grace’ – it’s sadly exceptional: “a nasty wind blows outside,” as someone remarks. Even this city’s own population isn’t entirely ‘Johnsonian’: Nouvelle vague legend Jean-Pierre Léaud skulks in the shadows as a snitch just itching to alert the authorities to Idrissa’s presence – though the chief representative of the law, Jean-Pierre Darroussin’s trilby-sporting, deadpan Inspector Monet, proves surprisingly amenable to Marcel’s persuasive bonhomie (“my heart has its tender spots,” he confides.)
In the light of recent Toulouse atrocities, Le Havre - which premiered at Cannes last May, and somehow went entirely unrewarded by Robert De Niro’s main-competition jury – can’t help but feel accidentally topical, even urgently so. Kaurismäki’s is a persuasive, world-weary sort of hard-knock humanism, built on twin, interlocking foundations of romantic love and practical-minded community spirit (liberté, égalité, fraternité indeed.)
The director’s long-established, distinctive brand of just-so, retro aesthetics is here realised with the help of collaborators long-standing (cinematographer Timo Salminen, part of the team since 1981) and new (production-designer Wouter Zoon). On the other side of the camera, silky veteran Darroussin and engaging debutant Blondin organically slot in with familiar faces from the established Kaurismäki rep-company (including four-legged pal Laika, who gets her own name-check in the credits).
The results are, as always with the admirably un-modish, unchanging Kaurismäki, visually striking in their mildly-stylised look (lighting is always sideways-on, never overhead) creating an alluringly shadowy netherworld of melancholic but subtly hopeful resilience and resourcefulness. As Le Havre’s very own Raoul Dufy once remarked, “Blue is the only colour which maintains its own character in all its tones… It was always stay blue.”
27th March 2012
written for Tribune magazine