The following piece is based on notes I wrote for a lecture I delivered in my friend Sara Vaux’s “Cinematic Meal” class at Northwestern University. It is the second such lecture I’ve given (following my “John Ford and the Cinematic Meal” talk a few years ago).
Le Havre, a film I first had the pleasure of seeing at the Chicago International Film Festival in 2011, is a sweet and gentle comedy set in the French seaport town of the title. Although Le Havre is a French production, its writer and director is the Finnish Aki Kaurismaki, a true “citizen of the world” whose deadpan comedies and road movies have frequently earned him comparisons to Jim Jarmusch and Iceland’s Fridrik Thor Fridriksson. The film is something of a tribute to the history of French cinema: it features cameos by French screen legends Jean-Pierre Leaud and Pierre Etaix, and characters who are pointedly named “Marcel,” “Arletty” and “Becker,” not to mention that the town of Le Havre itself is the destination of the barge in L’atalante. The most surprising thing about Le Havre, however, might be just how sweet and gentle it is in comparison to the rest of Kaurismaki’s filmography. While the Finn has made many humorous movies going back to the 1980s, when he first established his international reputation, there has frequently been a misanthropic quality to much of his work. His particular brand of comedy is bitter, bleak and what one might term, at the risk of geographical stereotyping, “quintessentially Scandinavian.” (To give but one example, when asked why he rarely moved the camera in his movies, Kaurismaki responded that he was frequently hungover and that moving the camera would make him sick.) Although this trademark deadpan humor is still present in Le Havre, it’s more sweet here than bitter, and there’s a sense that the director, who was 53-years-old when he made it, has mellowed over time.
Something that I didn’t notice until watching Le Havre for a second time, via Criterion’s terrific Blu-ray release, is the prominent role that food plays in the film. Meals have a certain symbolic resonance throughout the narrative as a result of Kaurismaki’s continually associating them with two things: community and matrimony. The main storyline in Le Havre concerns a bohemian shoeshiner named Marcel Marx (Andre Wilms in a reprise of his character from 1992’s La Vie de Boheme) who hides and aids a young illegal immigrant from Africa named Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), a political refugee trying to make his way to England. (We never learn exactly from where or what Idrissa’s fleeing — characterization here, as in much of Kaurismaki, is archetypal.) The very first time that Marcel meets Idrissa, Marcel asks him, “Are you hungry?” and offers the boy a sandwich. From that point on, not only Marcel but virtually everyone in the neighborhood where he lives will help to hide Idrissa from the French immigration authorities who are trying to capture and deport him. Two of the primary themes of the film then are racism and xenophobia and how they manifest themselves on an institutional level (e.g., through the government and the media). Kaurismaki also shows, with much humor and good cheer, how those bureaucratic institutions can ultimately be triumphed over on a local, neighborhood, human level: the vision of community Kaurismaki presents is a kind of fantasy-tinged utopia. Crucially, two of the people who are instrumental in coming to Marcel’s aid are a woman who owns a local bakery and a man who owns a local grocery store. Both of these characters are explicitly associated with food and are responsible for helping to feed and hide Idrissa.
The grocer and baker characters in Le Havre are essentially the opposite of the unhelpful grocer in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul — a German man who deliberately refuses to help the titular Moroccan immigrant (El Hedi ben Salem) by pretending that he cannot understand his request for margarine. Fassbinder’s message, which was very timely in 1974, was that a lot of contemporary Germans were pretending that the racist attitudes that drove the Nazi ideology of the past were obsolete but, in reality, they had just learned to bury such attitudes beneath the surface of a more superficially polite society. The deliberately contrived love story at the center of Fassbinder’s film — concerning Ali and Emma (Brigitte Mira), the much older German cleaning lady who marries him — was merely a tool that the director used in order to force his characters to reveal prejudices that would have otherwise remained hidden. Kaurismaki’s methodology and message in Le Havre are the opposite. The Finn is saying that, although elements of the contemporary French government and media may be racist — by equating immigrants with terrorists — when ordinary people come together face-to-face on a local level, they can be better than that. One French newspaper in the film idiotically claims that the young Idrissa may be “armed and dangerous” and “have connections to Al Qaeda.” But Marcel, whose innocuous shoe-shining gets him labeled a “terrorist” by an irate shopkeeper, protects the innocent boy by lying to the police. “I am doing my duty,” Marcel tells the police inspector (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), sincerely adding, “I love society.”
One thing that I’ve learned over the past six years of being married is that the concept of a meal takes on a whole new meaning between a husband and wife. Eating is probably the single activity one spends the most time engaged in with one’s spouse. As a result of both preparing and consuming so many meals together, married couples often end up forging a kind of collective culinary taste. (My wife, for instance, was a vegan and I was a carnivore when we first met. We both eventually compromised and became dairy-and-egg-consuming vegetarians.) In Le Havre, there is a subplot that parallels the main plot involving Marcel’s relationship with his wife, the aforementioned Arletty (Kati Outinen), who is hospitalized early on with an unspecified debilitating illness. Their marriage is old-fashioned in the sense that Marcel works and Arletty is a homemaker. It is significant that both times Kaurismaki shows Arletty at home before she’s taken to the hospital, she is stricken with what look like stomach pains while preparing Marcel’s dinner. Marcel is not present on either occasion because he’s at the corner bar, a kind of “boys will be boys” scenario with which both husband and wife — who are depicted as being deeply and genuinely in love — are more than comfortable. Which brings me to the final point I’d like to make about Le Havre: the rituals of consuming alcohol and tobacco are arguably even more important to Marcel than consuming food. In order to explain this particular proletarian/bohemian mindset, I’d like to quote from the great Spanish filmmaker Luis Bunuel (who himself directed many of his best movies in France):
To continue this panegyric on earthly delights, let me just say that it’s impossible to drink without smoking. I began to smoke when I was sixteen and have never stopped. My limit is a pack a day. I’ve smoked absolutely everything but am particularly fond of Spanish and French cigarettes (Gitanes and Celtiques especially) because of their black tobacco.
If alchohol is queen, then tobacco is her consort. It’s a fond companion for all occasions, a loyal friend through fair weather and foul. People smoke to celebrate a happy moment, or to hide a bitter regret. Whether you’re alone or with friends, it’s a joy for all the senses. What lovelier sight is there than that double row of white cigarettes, lined up like soldiers on parade and wrapped in silver paper? If I were blindfolded and a lighted cigarette placed between my lips, I’d refuse to smoke it. I love to touch the pack in my pocket, open it, savor the feel of the cigarette between my fingers, the paper on my lips, the taste of tobacco on my tongue. I love to watch the flame spurt up, love to watch it come closer and closer, filling me with its warmth . . .
Finally, dear readers, allow me to end these ramblings on tobacco and alcohol, delicious fathers of abiding friendships and fertile reveries, with some advice: Don’t drink and don’t smoke. It’s bad for your health.
You can watch the trailer for Le Havre via YouTube below: