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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

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide