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For Your Consideration: 'Le Havre'

Finnish writer and director Aki Kaurismäki (Leningrad Cowboys Go America) has returned to film in France for his latest feature, Le Havre. Perhaps not surprisingly, it was warmly received at the Cannes Festival last May, and Finland has submitted it as their official entry for the Academy Award in Foreign Film, where its odd combination of whimsy and social consciousness may give it an edge on the competition. The lead character is Marcel, an itinerant shoeblack, played by André Wilms (Europa Europa), reprising the same character he played in La Vie de Bohème, Kaurismäki's last movie produced in France, from 1992. Marcel stands at the ready in the train station or wherever men walk by, with his eyes firmly fixed on their shoes. The themes explored here, immigration and poverty, are familiar from La Vie de Bohème, a retelling of Henri Murger's Scènes de la Vie de Bohème with a bunch of artistic immigrants in Paris. At one point, Marcel recalls his Bohemian life in Paris, explaining that he fell into drinking, was rescued by Arletty, his patient Finnish wife (Kati Outinen, a Kaurismäki favorite), and now lives this simple life in the gritty town of Le Havre.

Simple, that is, until at the port a container, bound from Gabon to London, is found to contain human cargo. An African boy (Blondin Miguel) escapes from the police, and Marcel gives him food and help: he finally becomes a house guest at the instigation of the couple's sweetly protective dog, Laïka (played by Kaurismäki's own pet of the same name). The film's bright colors, part of a quirky vision of a small, rainy town, recall the films of Jacques Demy, whose wistful, odd stories were set in places like Cherbourg and Rochefort. The piliers du bar sit at the local watering hole, La Moderne, debating which region of France is the best: a Breton claims that Brittany is a culture, not just a region, and they cannot even agree if Brittany or Normandy can claim Mont St. Michel (it is in Normandy), and so on. The film looks and feels like it is set in the 60s, in a town that time forgot, but it is clearly meant to be happening in the last decade. At one point the characters watch a television news report about the riots and closure of the refugee camp at Sangatte, known as "La Jungle," which was closed in 2002 by Nicolas Sarkozy, then Minister of the Interior. In its vision of a France that may once have been and that really should be (but perhaps is not), Le Havre features the same sort of guilty nostalgia of which Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Amélie was accused.

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Another Kaurismäki favorite, Evelyne Didi, is back as Yvette, the kindly boulangère who helps the couple, driving them to the hospital when Arletty discovers she has a terrible illness. Later, she is shown reading from Kafka's short story Children on a Country Road, as Arletty falls asleep in the hospital: Kafka's wandering narration from the mind of a child seems to have informed the movie's structure. Kaurismäki has a way with lingering close-ups, shoulder-length, a way of plumbing character or the significance of a moment, as when the camera assesses each of the stowaways when an outlandishly immense government force, combining armed police and paramedics, opens the shipping container (cinematography by Timo Salminen).

Music is crucial to the story, too, from orchestral music by Einojuhani Rautavaara, to Le Havre local rocker Little Bob, to the melancholy chansons sung by Damia and others, and the LP of Statesboro Blues played by Blind Willie McTell (the resonance with African mal du pays is palpable as the boy, Idrissa, listens to it). Kaurismäki embeds all sorts of references to other films in Le Havre, not least in the cameo by Jean-Pierre Léaud, who played Truffaut in all of Truffaut's biographical films, as a suspicious informer. The gruff inspector on the trail of the boy, whimsically named Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), riffs on Claude Rains' Captain Renault in Casablanca, for example, and mining the movie for its many references and allusions should keep film buffs happy.

This film opens today, exclusively at the E Street Cinema.

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