By Iris Cohen
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 368

Le Havre

This article is over 10 years, 2 months old
With the French presidential elections looming, this is a perfect time to remind people of the repression and violence towards minorities and immigrants in France, which has increased under Nicolas Sarkozy.
Issue 368

Some of the most despicable images of this were from the infamous raids of refugee camps (disgustingly dubbed “the jungle”) in Calais in 2009. This is the backdrop to Kaurismäki’s latest film, Le Havre, set on the Channel coast.

Wanting to address the repercussions of the economic crisis in both Europe and the Global South, the Finnish eccentric art-house filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki has decided to make a more obviously political film than usual. But don’t expect the realism of Welcome (which has a similar story). This film brings something else to the table, with its more dreamlike tone.

Le Havre explores the life of Marcel Marx (not sure the name adds much except a hint of respect) and his unexpected encounter with Idrissa, an African refugee child on the run from the police who hopes to be reunited with his family in London. Marcel struggles to make ends meet and relies on his wife and neighbours to get by. When his wife is taken ill, he loses his companion but finds a new purpose in helping Idrissa.

As in many of his previous films, Kaurismäki tries to capture working class alienation – portraying characters that seem removed from time and detached from their reality and each other. When that barrier is overcome and people turn to each other for solidarity and affection, we see a glimmer of hope.

But nothing is perfect. The danger of raids and anonymous tip-offs to the police are a constant threat. This anxiety is an important acknowledgement of the climate of fear that hangs over migrants and activists in France – and echoes the dark time of collaboration under the Vichy government in the Second World War.

Kaurismäki shows us a police force that does whatever it’s told, no matter how ridiculous or extreme, set on achieving its targets for the political benefit of the government. On the other hand, the character of Inspector Monet seems oddly lenient when it comes to immigration. He sees himself as a friendly community cop with other cases to crack, going against higher authorities to protect Marcel and Idrissa. 

Although the media attention around the situation of undocumented people in this region has subsided, the raids have been continuing on a regular basis. As much as this film should provoke debate (in the same way that Welcome did), it is perhaps both blessed and cursed by its highbrow style. It risks being dismissed as just another weird Kaurismäki movie, only to be seen by film students and his fans.

But I would argue that Le Havre with its timeless, stage-like style, slow pace and deadpan humour offers a dignified tale of working class struggle and compassion.
The quirky moments, the shades of good and bad shown in everyone, make Le Havre worth watching.

Iris Cohen

Le Havre is directed by Aki Kaurismäki and is out now

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