Telluride at Dartmouth: Le Havre

This post is the last in my chronicle of attending the Telluride at Dartmouth program at the Hopkins Center for the Arts. Days 1 & 2 (A Dangerous Method and Albert Nobbs) can be found here, Day 3 (We Need to Talk About Kevin) can be found here, and Day 4 (In Darkness) can be found here.

The final film of the six shown in the Telluride at Dartmouth program was Le Havre, written and directed by Aki Kaurismäki. (As I expected, I wasn't able to get over to Hanover for The Kid with the Bike, alas.) It was a good choice for a concluding film because the program had been, overall, rather bleak -- enjoyable, powerful, illuminating, but seldom uplifting. Le Havre is a fairy tale and a feel-good movie, one that tackles terrifying and complex subjects whimsically and is so determined to finish on a good note that everybody's ending is a happy one. It's naive to the point of being Panglossian, but so darn nice about it that it seems churlish to complain. It's a tremendously enjoyable movie to sit through -- weird, funny, and full of scenes that will make you feel good about human generosity. It's the cinematic equivalent of "Kumbaya", but with more wit.

[Note that from here on, I'm going to talk about the whole film, including its ending(s). I don't think knowing how it all turns out will impede most people's enjoyment of the movie, because its tone from early on telegraphs that this is not a tragedy, but if you're the sort of person who hates to know anything about a movie's story no matter what, you should stop reading right now.]

Actually, what Le Havre really felt like to me was one of Hal Hartley's good movies, the kind he hasn't made since Henry Fool: odd, unpredictable, at least a bit silly, the sort of movie that revels in its own irony and artificiality, yet by the end somehow transforms all its irony into shameless sincerity, even sentimentality. Le Havre is the product of an utterly sentimental view of humanity, yet it isn't itself a particularly sentimental film, to my eyes, because it doesn't work very hard to wrench emotions out of us, or even insist on them. It just depicts an awful lot of nice, ordinary people being nice and ordinary to each other and to one particular stranger. Even cancer gets cured by the niceness.

The story is a simple one: An aging shoeshiner in Le Havre, France, Marcel Marx (played by André Wilms), happens upon an illegal immigrant, a boy from (if my memory is correct) Gabon named Idrissa (Blondin Miguel). Since Marcel's wife is in the hospital, he takes the boy in and shelters him from the security forces that are the primary antagonist of this story. The security forces are sent into motion by the insistence of Marx's busy-body neighbor, played by the great Jean-Pierre Léaud, and known, at least according to IMDB, as "The Denouncer". He is pretty much the only individual character who is never generous. He looks like Gargamel, in fact, and serves the same purpose in this community as Gargamel does in the world of The Smurfs: he's mean to nice people. Even the supposed-to-be-mean-because-it's-his-job police officer is actually a softie at heart.

All of this makes for a very genial movie, one where we can sympathize with the quirky individuals who make up the community of nice people in Le Havre and can feel superior to and horrified by the well-armed security forces in riot gear. The David & Goliath story is always appealing; indeed, I expect it can be traced back well before David and Goliath. There's also a racial component -- our kindly liberal hearts sing at the sight of all the good, mostly-white people who shelter the lost black boy.

The question that keep bouncing around in my head after seeing Le Havre is: should we be encouraged to feel so good about all this?

Migration is on the minds of Europe's filmmakers this year. Consider the excellent roundup of new films from or about Africans that Sean Jacobs put together at Africa is a Country -- the first group of films are all about migration. Whatever their various virtues or limitations, none of these movies seem to take as light an approach to the topic as Kaurismäki does with Le Havre.

Maybe the light approach is okay, even welcome. Maybe it helps us see the human questions at the heart of polarizing political and social problems. Maybe the thing we need right now is a fairy tale about community and generosity instead of ever more painfully realistic stories about the human costs. Maybe we need to dream about our potential to help each other. Maybe we need to believe that willpower will create miracles.

I'm not convinced, myself, but I'm a cynical old creature, and I have trouble seeing a film like Le Havre as anything other than a big lie that lets audiences feel good about something they should be horrified by. But that could just be the pessimist in me having a knee-jerk reaction to an endlessly optimistic story.

The craftsmanship of the film is undeniably strong -- the performances are affecting without ever seeming forced, the dialogue is witty and inventive, the pacing gentle but never dull. It's a film full of sly references to other films, and so in some way it's not even about the "real world" so much as it is about its own received/constructed reality, the reality of cinema. Yet Kaurismäki clearly wants us to think about the reality beyond the screen -- his characters are located in a specific place, time, and class; and there is a definite materiality to even the most absurd shots. Kaurismäki and cinematographer Timo Salminen tend often to shoot people straight on, especially when characters are first introduced. These shots are held long enough for us to really see each face, and in some way to imagine ourselves as seen by the eyes looking out through the screen. When the immigrants are first revealed, we are given a series of shots that really show them to us -- These, the film seems to be saying, are human beings. The only undifferentiated characters are the soldiers of the security forces. Formally, the film aligns the immigrants with the main characters, insisting on their equal humanity, and positions the humans against the nameless, generally faceless, and always threatening power of the State.

It's notable that the one individual antagonist, the Denouncer, is the one character who is a label instead of a name. Even Laika the dog is a clearer personality than the Denouncer or the soldiers.

Perhaps Le Havre is not, then, so much a fairy tale as an allegory -- an allegory of individual goodness against bureaucratic, state evil. It's the sort of movie Ron Paul could endorse. Little people against the government, solving problems the way they did way back in the good ol' days before paper money, back when everybody took care of everybody else. Who needs health insurance, after all, when the cure for terminal diseases is to wish them away? (Ron Paul wouldn't like Le Havre's overall message of tolerance for immigrants, though, as his own views are mostly toward the other side.)

Many of the scenes in Le Havre are amusing. One is sublime. It's a brief scene, but immensely rich. Idrissa discovers Marcel's record player, and puts on Blind Willie McTell's "Stateboro Blues". Marcel arrives home just then and watches him. Idrissa seems entranced. It's difficult to know quite what he thinks, but there he is -- a Gabonian boy in France listening to a long-dead African-American blues singer, overseen by an old French shoeshiner who has, himself, been described as like a child. Age and time, geography and history all disappear in that moment of common humanity.

Whatever my reservations about Le Havre's worldview, it and I and Bob Dylan can, it seems, all agree on one thing: No one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell.

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