Show Hide image

Review: Le Havre

Le Havre (PG)

dir: Aki Kaurismäki
Should you be looking for one image from Le Havre to sum up the sensibility of the Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki, you could do worse than an interior shot of the hero’s poky house. The living room is decked out in colours to which the director could reasonably add his own name, à la Yves Klein: despondent blue-grey, sickly mustard yellow, the diseased green of pea soup. Lukewarm pea soup, that is, made from frozen peas in a prison kitchen. 
On the wall is a framed painting of a window opening on to a tranquil and inviting sea. This combination of the dingy and the dreamy, with the stylised grimness of the room offset by the yearning of the seascape, characterises the kind of dry comedies that Kaurismäki has been turning out every four or five years since the mid-1980s. No one else has made the deadpan so life-affirming.
Le Havre is his most exuberantly optimistic film yet. Marcel (André Wilms, who played the character in his Bohemian days in Kaurismäki’s 1992 film La Vie de bohème) is an ageing shoeshine in the French port town of the title. His doting wife, Arletty (Kati Outinen), is admitted one night to hospital. When the doctor brings her the bad news, the worst news, Arletty begs him not to tell Marcel – he’s just a big child, she explains. (The doctor agrees to fudge the issue: “I’ll talk like a politician,” he says.)
Marcel has enough on his plate. African immigrants have been discovered in a shipping container in the port; one of them, a young boy named Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), has fled the police’s clutches and stumbled into Marcel’s life. Idrissa doesn’t say much but neither does Marcel. Both have a penchant for gazing wistfully out to sea. They’re a good match.
Another film-maker might have spotted in this story an odd-couple dynamic – grumpy old man confronts his prejudices by harbouring a desperate immigrant, that kind of thing. Except Marcel isn’t grumpy, despite the misfortune in his life, and nor is he prejudiced. He sees that help is required and he provides it. He tracks down Idrissa’s grandfather in a detention centre and learns that the boy is heading to meet his mother in London. 
With his business failing and his wife convalescing, Marcel devotes his days to guaranteeing Idrissa’s wellbeing. The neighbours snap into action; a shopkeeper who once yanked down the shutters whenever he saw Marcel approach now gives him trays of food. Would a charity concert to raise money for Idrissa’s safe passage be far-fetched? Yes, but it works. Even a frowning police inspector snooping around town is no match for such altruism.
The outpouring of goodwill is all the more delightful set against Kaurismäki’s retro aesthetic, which is like film noir spliced with The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. The lighting is vividly theatrical, picking characters out of the shadows, or bestowing upon Marcel’s dog, Laika (a Kaurismäki regular), a flattering spotlight during a visit to the neighbourhood bar. The sets look both freshly painted and dilapidated.
Perhaps it’s Kaurismäki’s absurdist humour that has prevented the political significance of his films, steeped as they are in economic realities, from being appreciated properly. Or maybe their hopeful overtones have disqualified them from serious consideration, with darkness or pessimism in art still frustratingly synonymous with depth. 
The fact that Marcel’s family name is Marx, or that Arletty’s friends bring Kafka to her hospital bedside rather than Reader’s Digest, probably won’t change that. This is a film concerned unfashionably with miracles: when Arletty declares that they don’t happen in her neighbourhood, the film sets out to prove her wrong and also to demonstrate that the miraculous can be human in origin as well as divine.
If Le Havre feels like the most modern of Kaurismäki’s pictures, it must be because of the torn-from-the-headlines plot (alerted to the immigrants’ arrival, the local paper starts whimpering about al-Qaeda). But the film’s pleasures are as timeless as they are numerous, from a soundtrack that blends street-corner accordions and twanging ballads with “Apache” guitars, to the director’s palpable and long-standing affection for his actors. Their crumpled, weather-beaten faces exude what screenwriting gurus call “back story” and the rest of us know as life.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue

Youtube Screengrab
Show Hide image

Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis