Aki Kaurismaki's French language debut is a grimly funny working class drama
Migrating south to shoot his latest feature in France seems to have lightened the mood of the Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismaki, whose brand of deadpan humour has previously proved to be the key in crafting a series of delightfully miserable comedies set in and around Helsinki. Happily, exporting his trademark comic sensibility to (apparently) less melancholy climes has in no way diminished Kaurismaki’s talent for wringing laughs – and genuinely touching drama – out of stories in which the less privileged members of society stoically endure whatever miseries socio-economic forces – plus plain bad luck – send their way.
All that said, it should come as no great surprise that Kaurismaki has chosen to set his new film in one of France’s most dismal locales: Le Havre, the Normandy seaport that was levelled during World War II and subsequently rebuilt in style best described as a soulless concrete sprawl. Today, France’s second largest port after Marseille (no Mediterranean sun for Kaurismaki!) is home to a good deal of unemployment and poverty and to the immigrant overflow from Calais up the coast. This is the milieu Kaurismaki has chosen for his French-language debut, which revolves around the admirable efforts of elderly shoe-shiner Marcel Marx (the superbly stoic André Wilms) to help a young African immigrant boy to evade the French authorities and cross the Channel to London, family and a better life.
In the hands of Ken Loach (or France’s answer to Loach, Robert Guédiguian), this sorry tale would, no doubt, be an unremittingly grim, if true-to-life drama. In Kaurismaki’s hands, it’s not only grimly funny, but the proceedings are given a glorious stylistic makeover, courtesy of the filmmaker’s love of 1950s kitsch, which here expresses itself in a homage to the Technicolor romantic dramas of Douglas Sirk. It’s a beguiling cinematic conceit that bestows dignity upon Kaurismaki’s beloved underclass. And it looks really cool.
Selected release from Fri 6 April.