Over a 30-year career, Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki has carved himself a very particular niche in the world of contemporary arthouse cinema, as if he sidesteps most of everything everyone else is chasing and looks for something  else entirely, often hidden in the folds of classic film history. In that sense, Le Havre, his 16th full-length feature (and first in five years) brings nothing new to the table - still the same old deadpan humour (and veteran comedian Pierre Étaix has a brief supporting role), the carefully tended balance of despair and wide-eyed humour, the deliberate throwback to the cinema of an earlier age, charmingly stylized in the way it never tries to be self-consciously "modern" while knowing it can never be truly "classic".

     But Mr. Kaurismäki's wry stylisation is indeed leavened in Le Havre by a more openly humanist philosophy, by a deliberate engagement with a specific reality of the world outside his universe, through the tale, set in a popular neighborhood of the title French harbour town, of an illegal immigrant boy (Blondin Miguel) trying to evade the border patrol, taken in by a struggling shoeshine (a wonderful André Wilms) whose wife (Kati Outinen) is in the hospital with a possibly grave illness. Evoking deliberately the French cinema of the 1930s - whether in its Popular Front or dour, Quai des Brumes-like atmospherics - but also the later laconicisms of the polar (Melville is always around the corner, like in the ambiguous policeman played by Jean-Pierre Darroussin), Mr. Kaurismäki pulls off what may be his most accessible film, a fanciful yet heartwarming treat that is always fully aware of its status as a well-meaning fable but does not refuse to engage the world outside.

     Ironically, that engagement with the contemporary handling of illegal immigration in France is the film's weakest link - the intrusion of reality somehow shatters some of the old-fashioned magic of the film, highlights just how self-contained and self-centred the director's universe has become. Whether Le Havre will expand the director's following beyond his usual coterie of aficionados is anyone's guess, but it certainly is the ideal entry point for those who've been hearing about him for 30 years and haven't yet dipped their toes in.

André Wilms, Kati Outinen, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Blondin Miguel, Elina Salo, Evelyne Didi, Quoc-Dung Nguyen.
     Director/writer, Aki Kaurismäki; cinematography (colour, processing by Éclair), Timo Salminen; production designer, Wouter Zoon; costume designer, Frédéric Cambier; editor, Timo Linnasalo; producer, Mr. Kaurismäki (Sputnik, Pyramide Productions, Pandora Film, ARTE France Cinéma, ZDF/ARTE), Finland/France/Germany, 2011, 93 minutes.
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 12, February 2nd 2012. 


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