Le Havre: A subtle study of human connection

Hana Afifi , Saturday 28 Nov 2015

The Finnish, French and German production was a choice by Egyptian director Hala Galal to be screened at the 8th Panorama of the European Film

Le Havre
(Photo: still from Le Havre)

A Finland/France/German comedy-drama, Le Havre was screened twice during the first days of the 8th Panorama of the Europen Film, an event which runs until 5 December.

The film screened as part of the Carte Blanche, Panorama’s section which includes the directors’ choice of films which they deem influential to their cinematic vision.

It is a movie where the director creates a parody, playing with all sorts of intellectual references and an audience member who is not well-aware of the many undertones will not get the references.

Egyptian director Hala Galal, who chose the movie for the screening in the 8th Panorama of the European Film, said she likes how the director chooses to tell his stories and to draw his characters.

He plays with “hidden jokes” and intertwines literature, philosophy, theatre.

This is evident in several scenes, like for example when a friend of a character on her death bed is reading her a book of short stories by Franz Kafka.

On the other hand, an inspector in the movie is also a parody of a character in the Brothers Karamazov, a novel by Dostoyevsky, a reference that Hala Galal mentioned in the Q&A session on Friday that followed the movie.

And it is while “playing” with all those elements that the Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki tells a human story: one of an African refugee who finds himself in Le Havre, a port city in French Normandy.

Galal says Kaurismäki wanted to have a trilogy in three port cities in France, Spain and Germany, where an African refugee finds himself in Europe.

In Le Havre, an African refugee crosses the life path of the film’s protagonist, a retired writer Marcel Marx (played by Andre Wilms).

The old man seems to be loved by many, with his humor and charisma. He is an author who chose to retire into the life of a shoe-shiner.

With the migrant flow across Europe, the refugee detail resonates in the audience’s mind as a story of today. And though the theme makes it very timely, it was not the reason behind Galal’s choice of Le Havre to screen.

There is much more to retrieve from the film, such as its unique style and the many humane aspects embedded in the characters.

Concealed humanity

Set in port city Le Havre, the movie adopts a warm mood, with an almost constant seagull sound typical of the seaside. A number of scenes are shot against a background of an amalgam of boats where action takes place as the movie starts and as it closes.

Knowing that Kaurismäki is particularly interested in port cities, it is clear why he so meticulously highlights the aesthetic value of the place.

The mood is also embodied by Marcel Marx himself. Marx has lost his inspiration, but channels it through his relations with his neighbors in a small town that favors such warm encounters.

The music is the main contributor to such an atmosphere.

The effect of harmonica music in some of the scenes is almost nostalgic. In another scene we hear an accordion played in the street. In another, it is a French song playing in the bus the main character rides.

A radio which refugees are listening to at the entrance of the camp Marx is visiting, offers the soundtrack to another scene.

Above all, Le Havre is definitely a humane experience, where kindness is not weighed down by compassion, but lightened by the humor manifested in the style of the director who offers his own take on humanity. 

And even if Kaurismäki chooses parody and sarcasm about humans, he is far from being grim or uncompassionate.

The arrival of the African refugee into the city unites neighbors together and brings a kind side out of them.

Despite seeming anachronistic, the dramatically lit close-ups indicate emotions of the characters.

Even though the acting seemed physical, played on the outside rather than coming with emotions from the inside, what every character feels still gets through.

It is hard to stir the audience’s emotion when the movie’s pace is so slow; long shots of Marx wrapping a gift, or of him walking along the corridor of a hospital.

But one cannot miss the pleasant experience that though prompted laughter, it restores faith in how humans can connect.

We see “manifestations of tenderness in crises,” Galal commented to the audience after the movie.

An ‘old-fashioned’ delight

The style of Le Havre resembles an old movie, a fifties style, the interpretation of which stirred a debate in the Q&A session after the screening.

An audience member pointed out it was intended to make it “seem timeless,” as the old style was mixed with the appearance of a mobile phone, for instance.

This feeling of an old movie comes from the many dramatic close-ups and lighting.

It is also linked to the characters who seem to be “placed” by the director like a piece of a puzzle in the scene, others who are depicted in an almost caricature way like that of the inspector with a moustache, a long black coat and an air of mystery.

Galal gave her take on the matter. She believes it is not a particular choice for a symbolic time, but only a realistic portrayal of a poor port city of today where nothing really happens and where cities look ancient and people dress in an old-fashioned way.

She believes the way it was shot like an old movie with a slow place was a stylistic choice made by a director who likes to use humor.

But this style sometimes was not reachable to everyone though even prompted laughter from the audience. An audience member was whispering comments, wondering if this was a “joke.”

“The director likes to play. He does not take himself very seriously,” Galal concluded. 

Le Havre
(Photo: still from Le Havre)

Check Panorama's programme here and Ahram Online recommendations here.

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