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Le Havre: A 21st Century Shomin-geki from Aki Kaurismaki

June 27, 2024 | By

Aki Kaurismäki’s films, marked by minimalistic aesthetics and poignant political commentary, highlight working-class struggles. Dipyaman Ganguly explores Kaurismäki’s blend of visual storytelling and social critique in Le Havre.

Akii Kaurismäki

Finnist auteur Akii Kaurismäki

Akii Kaurismäki, the Finnish auteur, embodies a distinctive style that marks his contribution to cinema in terms of both cinematic aesthetics and embedded politics. Often featuring minimalistic dialogue, subdued performances, and a stark, poignant visual style, Kaurismaki’s films echo the traditions of Scandinavian stoicism and understatement. These elements combine to create narratives that are deeply resonant, highlighting the lives of society’s outcasts and especially the working-class heroes.

Politically, Kaurismäki’s films often critique modern capitalist societies, subtly yet powerfully commenting on the alienation and disenchantment felt by ordinary individuals. His direction style, characterized by static camera positions and little camera movements, encourages viewers to focus on the actors’ subtle performances and the rich visual compositions. The films’ aesthetic choices mirror the emotional landscapes of their characters, strongly emphasizing their resilience in the face of adversity. The minimal use of dialogue and the emphasis on visual storytelling allow viewers to engage deeply with the characters’ plights, making the social critique more potent.

Aesthetically, Kaurismäki is known for his use of colour and meticulous composition, with his palette often leaning towards muted tones, which reflect not only the bleak urban landscapes but also the internal worlds of his characters. His 2011 film Le Havre, the focus of the second section of the present essay, serves as a prime example for all that are ‘Kaurismaki’.

His work in cinema stands out for its unique blend of aesthetic minimalism and potent political messages, wherein the unique narrative approach, visual style, and even the sound design, offer a reflection on the human condition that is universally relevant. With a very careful balance of form and content, Kaurismäki continues to challenge and entertain audiences, thus making a significant mark on cinematic expressions globally.

In a world of solipsistic cynicism and insurmountable fear toward any socialist tendency, wherein the State sponsors corporate pilferage of global resources and die-hard democratic citizens ‘live in gated communities, feeding on organic food’, a Finnish filmmaker embarks on a journey from Holland to Spain, in search of a seaport town wherein he can shoot a film on internationalism and proletarian solidarity. If this is not nerve-wrenching enough for you, he painstakingly formulates an image of an age-worn but strong pair of hands of an ex-artist shoe-shiner slowly and carefully wrapping a yellow dress in brown paper for his hospitalized wife. The cinematographer (Timo Salminen) also puts utmost care in capturing the old-school deftness and concern, and devotes a full close-up frame for this gesture. So, it seems ideological contemplation took a long time before Kaurismaki finally started shooting his film in a small French town named Le Havre.

Le havre

The immigrant boy Idrissa

The narrative of the film goes like this — an old French shoe-shiner named Marcel Marx has a dog named Laika. With the help of his working-class compatriots, Marx helps Idrissa Salem, a French-speaking immigrant Muslim black boy from Gabon, to join his mother in London. Marx and his compatriots are trying to protect Salem from the state immigration administration. If we think deeper about the narrative and the script, we will probably not miss to find an old-school dreamer taking the help of the good-old proletarian solidarity to start nothing less than a war against the xenophobic bourgeois State to clean up its post-colonial mess. In this film, Kaurismaki offers us a bunch of old-school dreamers to subvert the system, and they succeed in achieving it till the very end as they emerge victorious. They can even break the myth of the incurability of modern-day diseases and bring back home their loved ones clad in their favourite yellow dresses. And the doctor zestfully admits he hasn’t known any such occurrence in his life but one incidence in Shanghai!

Le havre

Marcel, the old French shoe-shiner

Through an impeccable aesthetic of image synthesis, a clear denouncement of the world that be and an incorrigible compassion for the working class, Kaurismaki creates a phenomenal tribute to the French Nouvelle Vague and the Japanese Shomin-geki films of the last century. He takes extreme care to portray the emotional atmosphere of the characters in the way Nouvelle Vague introduced us to it. In addition, what makes the creation even more significant is the honesty and integrity of the filmmaker in stripping his characters off all the aura of heroism, leaving behind just the purest traces of human memo types.

Le havre

Little Bob singing in a charity concert

Marcel sitting uncomfortably on an upholstered chair in the hospital where the glistening sheen on the leather attracts our attention, or Little Bob singing in a charity concert (planned by Marcel and his compatriots to raise money to smuggle Idrissa out of France) in a red leather jacket with a bass-guitarist playing a red guitar, or a quasi-impressionistic image of a red flower and a ticking clock on the wall soon followed by the image of Idrissa sitting on a couch – these images and more leave us wondering about the reasons behind the out-of-place-ness of the characters in their ambiences. Only then do we realize that the film conjures them up to point to the underlying tension in all of their lives. On a different note, the hospital couch also leaves a trace of the humorous interaction between man and modernity very reminiscent of Jacques Tati’s Playtime.

Le havre

A full-bloom cherry blossom tree in the last scene of Le Havre

The dream of socialism is no more. Kaurismaki invokes a cherry blossom to commemorate the bygone days. In the very last shot of the film, the image of a fully bloomed tree, against an unmistakable backdrop of the simple and linear architectural profile of a proletarian neighbourhood, hovers in front of us. Slowly, the image gets blurred, not by design but by effect, as our eyes fill up with tears. Tears of both joy and despair. We mourn for the bygone days of humanity and social solidarity. We are reminded of what Yasuziro Ozu wrote in his diary when his mother passed away as he was in the process of writing the script of his An Autumn Afternoon –  “Spring has arrived. Cherry blossoms are in full bloom. Here I am agonizing over An Autumn Afternoon. Like torn rags, the cherry blossoms display a forlorn expression – sake tastes bitter as gall.”

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Dipyaman Ganguly is a cinephile especially with great interest in progressive world cinema creating new frontiers of cinematic aesthetics. Professionally he is a physician-scientist.
All Posts of Dipyaman Ganguly

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