The Old Resistance
Published on October 21st, 2011 | by Nathan Rogers-Hancock0
“Le Havre” opens October 21 at IFC Center.
Running Time: 93 Minutes. Unrated.
Language: French with English subtitles.
Marcel Marx, played by the great Andre Wilms, who looked like a young man in his first collaborations with Aki Kaurismäki and looks like an old man now, plays a man who was once a writer and now shines shoes for a living. He lives with his beautiful dog Laika and his wife Arletty, who is played by Kati Outinen, the extraordinary actress whose face is as central to Kaurismäki’s cinema as Liv Ullmann was to Bergman or Dietrich to Sternberg. When he gets home she puts his meager earnings in a tiny metal cash box; she shines his shoes while he sleeps. The plot of “Le Havre” the movie, the shape of the action, is constructed in such broad gestures that to do more than summarize it would be to do the film a grave injustice; if this were a manuscript the handwriting would carry nearly as much weight as the the words themselves. Arletty falls ill, Marcel takes in a young African refugee named Idrissa, (played, excellently, by the young Blondin Miguel, the only performer in this film who carries on his shoulders the future of film and not the past) and then Marcel calls on the goodness of his neighbors to shield the young man from the attentions of the black clad French policemen.
In all of this, it is the gesture that counts, the perfect moment, plot in action boiled down to the smallest possible amount of shots. Kaurismäki has defined his own visual style – as much as any living filmmaker, the way he shoots a scene can be considered unmistakeably his – but it is more than that, a matter of rhythm, a effortless rhythm, like a barroom pianist who holds the tempo with his left hand while smoking a cigarette in his right, pretending that the gesture is the easiest in the world.
Kaurismäki made his name in the ‘80s, the time when Finand was dragged into an endless depression by the collapse of its neighbors in the Soviet Union; no filmmaker after Fassbinder has ever focused with such concentration on what it is like to live on subsistence wages in a dying country. Is it any surprise that he has made his most energized film in over a decade during this horror film descent into worldwide collapse? The question of immigration may be at the heart of Europe’s future, and Kaurismäki goes there, quietly, with a film that is either an homage to the poetic realism of Marcel Carné or a comedy in the tradition of Tati and Ioselliani (that is, a comedy about the intersection of grace and the horror of the world that will come), a film that has the courage to stress the reverberations of current EU leadership with the Occupation, and the even greater courage confront that with an optimism carries all the more charge by the light of its impossibility. There is a miracle at the end that is as affecting as anything in Dreyer, and there is a dog that is as charming as any dog you will see in a film this year. Grace is a nearly forgotten concept, and modesty a rare virtue; to encounter both in the year of our lord two thousand and eleven is a joy, or more than a joy, depending on how much weight you might put on films and the year of our lord two thousand and eleven, as such.