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I wouldn’t have been surprised if Santa had arrived in a sleigh from Finland

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“There are no shoe shiners in France”, said my French friend C after watching Le Havre.

I noticed that she had a small, troubled wrinkle in her forehead.

C used to be strangely addicted to Scandinavia, but the last few years, she’s become more and more homesick. As a comfort she watches every French movie that opens in a cinema, as long as it isn’t violent. And that means that she gets to see almost every single one of them, because if they make any action movies in France, they don’t reach the Swedish cinemas.

Action is something we leave for the Americans.

If you go to see a French movie, you’ll find yourself in an audience which mostly consists of middle aged women with unfulfilled dreams about running away to Provence. They want to open cafés in picturesque villages and grow lemons in their gardens and make sketches in their notebooks, which they secretly hope to get published one day. They want movies that smell of red wine and rosemary, so that’s what they get.

Now, C isn’t an average middle aged lady. She’d rather work as a sailor on a freighter than serve coffee in a café. But she loves to go back to her homeland, hearing her own language spoken, seeing the familiar environments, if only for a few hours. However in the case of Le Havre, I could sense a stroke of disappointment in her voice. It didn’t show the France that she knew.

“People use Euro bills in it and the television looks modern, so guess it’s supposed to take place in the present. But their clothes and the places where they live look as if it was in the 50s. It’s a strange mix. And it doesn’t feel like France.” she remarked.

A  sweet story
While I’m not French, I could see where she was coming from. You would probably look in vain if you went to Le Havre and tried to find locations and inhabitants that came anywhere near what we met in the movie.

On the other hand – strictly speaking it wasn’t even a French movie in the first place. While it takes place in France and has some French actors, the director is Finnish, it’s recorded partly in Finland and it’s also Finland’s candidate to the Best Foreign Language category of the Academy Awards.

But not as much about the director being a foreigner as it’s about the style and choices of Kaurismäki. He’s not even going for realism.

This is the story about the kind and poor shoe shiner Marcel Marx who encounters the boy Idrissa, who illegally has arrived from Africa at Le Havre with a cargo ship and wishes to continue to London where his mother lives. While his wife is at hospital, Marcel decides to hide and help out the boy and he gets most of his neighbors to help out in the project.

It’s sweet as you may suspect, a fairy tale for grown-ups and it got a suitable Christmas release in Sweden. This is a film so jammed full of sugar that if there had even an ounce more added to it, it would have been sickening. But now it balances out as just incredibly cute and delightful.

Frankly I wouldn’t have been all that surprised if Santa himself had turned up towards the end in his reindeer driven sleigh as a deus ex machina, giving the boy a green card wrapped as a Christmas gift.

Mind you, I don’t say this in a pejorative way. It’s rather a little saddening that a film that shows people who live according to the Sermon on the Mount (which only shepherds and shoe shiners do, if we’re to believe Kaurismäki) and conveys a message about the need for love and humanism stands out as so odd, naïve and completely out of touch with reality.

Le Havre is an antidote to the darkness and cynicism that most high quality movies on the repertoire bathe in. It’s a voice calling in the desert – one that we need to hear once in a while.

Even if it doesn’t look anything like the real France.

Le Havre (Aki Kaurismäki, FI/FR 2011) My rating: 4/5

Written by Jessica

January 4, 2012 at 1:00 am

Posted in Le Havre