After watching La Vie de Boheme (1992) I thought of Aki Kaurismaki as a postmodern director, and I don't typically think of postmodernists as crafting earnest message movies. Yet that's essentially the mission of Le Havre (2011): to tell a simple story expressing concern for the plight of illegal immigrants in France. Marcel Marx (Andre Williams), a cranky old bohemian, takes in a young African refugee, Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) and gruffly arranges his escape from France, with the professional but not inhuman investigator Manet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) on their heels. This entertaining and humanist narrative hopes not only to tell a story, but also to activate the viewer's sympathy in a way that an abstract pamphlet could not. To call as quiet, artful, and minor-key a film as Le Havre "propaganda" would seem heavy-handed, but the film wears its values on its sleeve by making the political explicitly personal. Given my casual impression of Kaurismaki, a hipster before the term was unfashionable, this direction surprised me.
I haven't seen most of the Finnish filmmakers' oeuvre, but this previous winter, while seeking rare movies on You Tube, I stumbled across La Vie de Boheme and was completely enchanted. I've never read the French novel nor viewed the infamous opera, but I have seen Rent, the wildly popular modern update of La Boheme, on Broadway. I also caught the silent King Vidor version (starring Lillian Gish) on TCM a few years back and perhaps most importantly, just weeks before viewing Kaurismaki's take I'd read Bohemia: The Protoculture Then and Now, an out-of-print book by Richard Miller, found in a used bookstore in western Massachusetts in late 2011. I've a great fondness for obscure and idiosyncratic historical surveys and this one did not disappoint, offering a sweeping and opinionated study of the Bohemian ideal, from its inception in Restoration France to its countercultural hippie present (at the time of writing, mid-seventies I believe).
Given the vast history of an already self-conscious phenomenon, how could Kaurismaki hope to capture the freshness of his film's source, Scenes de la Vie Boheme, by Henri Murger - the 1851 novel which popularized the idea of bohemianism and thus inadvertently led to the tropes of bohemian life becoming secondhand cliches? Kaurismaki's remarkable answer is to not even bother making the ideal seem fresh, nor to succumb (entirely) to nostalgia by making the film a period piece. Instead he highlights both the discrepancy and universality of an old-school bohemian lifestyle in the modern world. Cleverly setting his tale in the 1990s, with modern cars and clothing, Kaurismaki does not update the essentials of the story: the characters still live in unheated grottoes and die of TB in picaresque 19th century fashion (even if the hospital rooms are up-to-date). Most importantly, the deadpan characters skirt late 20th century irony, so the presentation is at once charmingly naive and whimsically clever.
Which brings us back to Le Havre; if La Vie de Boheme appears postmodern, that's because its pastiche of past and present has little purpose beyond its own (and our own) bemusement, and yet within this apparent lack of concern for historical authenticity is a kind of cool focus on emotional authenticity. For all the awareness of its own eccentricity, the film and its dramatic events seem no less sincere. Likewise Le Havre features quirky characters, a self-consciously stylized reality and a deadpan performance style, yet it lacks any winking guile. As it turns out, this self-aware quirky environment is actually the perfect environment for a low-key humanism, as if the self-conscious yet earnest bohemians of Murger's day had come full-circle. They've passed through a moment in which irony expressed indifference, to the other side where eccentricity doesn't necessarily entail alienation.
Though I wish we'd gotten to know the child refugee a bit better (Le Havre shares with most of the other films discussed this week a tendency to make African agony an opportunity for European/American redemption), Le Havre does not present itself as universal. Indeed it fixes itself squarely within its little territory and proudly cultivates this modest arena. Recently, I've been discussing the difference between big and small films, major- and minor-key, and bemoaning the fact that European cinema in particular seems to trend way too much toward the latter qualities (and to be clear, a film can be "big" in ways beyond obvious scale - I'd argue that the minimalist La Vie de Boheme is not quite "small" due to the originality of its approach to a perennial historical/cultural theme).
True enough, yet this is not to complain about small films in and of themselves: a healthy cinema should always be stuffed with films in which you can enfold yourself, with a handful of characters and environs in whose atmosphere you're content to while away the hours. Le Havre, despite touching on larger themes, is just such a film. It even gets away with (spoiler alert) reversing the melancholy ending of La Vie de Boheme, allowing Marcel's wife a miraculous medical recovery, a warmhearted gesture which only a small film, unburdened by thematic necessities or tragic obligations, could get away with. Kaurismaki has a tangible sense of place and moment, slightly chilly yet surprisingly beckoning, a grimace cloaking its heart - much like the expressionless yet compassionate police agent who will never display his humanism overtly; ultimately it is this very inexpression that saves the day. Sometimes saying nothing says it all.