Tag Archives: My Last Sigh

Aki Kaurismaki and the Cinematic Meal

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).

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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):

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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:


Bunuel’s First Golden Age

It was 80 years ago tomorrow that Luis Bunuel’s L’Age d’Or received its scandal-plagued world premiere in Paris. During the first screenings, fistfights broke out in the aisles and protesters threw ink at the screen. Surrealist paintings that had been commissioned to adorn the lobby especially for the occasion were vandalized. Within weeks, the film was banned by the French government and would not be seen again for many years. When L’Age d’Or belatedly premiered in the United States in the 1970s, it was still sufficiently shocking for Pauline Kael to label it “pornographically blasphemous,” strong language even if she did mean that as a compliment. When I’ve shown the film to students in Intro to Film classes, I’ve witnessed firsthand the power it still has to provoke and offend. This isn’t so much because of the content; after all, there’s not much in the way of “sex and violence” that kids today haven’t seen. Rather, it’s the ideas behind L’Age d’Or that are still shocking (and I suspect they always will be).

L’Age d’Or represents both the full flowering of Surrealist filmmaking as well as the artistic peak of Bunuel’s very own first golden age as a director. As a budding Surrealist, Bunuel had already made a mark on the cinema with his debut, the notorious, Salvador Dali co-scripted short film, Un Chien Andalou, in 1929. The end of this first phase of Bunuel’s career came all too soon, only three years later with the hilarious made-in-Spain pseudo-documentary, Land Without Bread. Unfortunately, it would then be another 15 years before Bunuel would direct under his own name again, when he emerged as an unlikely master of subversive Mexican melodramas. But luckily for lovers of the avante-garde, for one brief moment in Paris of 1930, the stars aligned, Bunuel found patronage in a wealthy Count and seized a narrow window of opportunity to make a deathless masterpiece for which the world wasn’t quite ready.

I often define a Surrealist film for my students as “a film that subverts the conventions of narrative continuity filmmaking through bizarre, dreamlike imagery and the destruction of narrative causality.” (I invented this definition because I couldn’t find another one that I found as useful.) Although L’Age d’Or fits the definition well, it also comes very close at times to imitating the kind of Hollywood narrative continuity conventions it is ultimately mocking, much more so than the nonsensically accessible Un Chien Andalou. I believe it is precisely this sense of familiarity, a feeling of being simultaneously so close to — and yet paradoxically so far away from — comprehending L’Age d’Or, that many viewers find unnerving.

L’Age d’Or does have a plot, of sorts; it’s about a man and a woman who are trying to make love and, for one reason or another, are continually prevented from doing so. The use of “interruption” as a narrative device would recur throughout Bunuel’s career, perhaps utilized most spectacularly in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. (In that sublime comedy, a group of people are, for various reasons, repeatedly prevented from eating dinner together.) But the narrative proper of L’Age d’Or is preceded by a prologue that many viewers find confusing; it begins as a documentary about scorpions. The narration of this crude-looking but real documentary footage tells us that the scorpion’s tail has five prismatic joints culminating in a final, poisonous stinger. The function of this prologue, aside from the fact that it’s bat-shit crazy in the best Surrealist tradition, is that it serves as a commentary on the structure of L’Age d’Or: Bunuel’s film also has five parts — the prologue, three “narrative segments” and an unexpected epilogue that serves as the director’s own poisonous stinger.

L’Age d’Or‘s second “segment” is an absurd story about the founding of Rome, where the rest of the movie will take place. When the third segment introduces us to the protagonists, the unnamed Man and Woman played by Gaston Modot and Lya Lys, we see them attempting to make love outside in broad daylight, writhing passionately in the mud. After being forcibly pried apart by members of respectable society, the third segment sees the Man taken away in police custody and the Woman forced to return home to her bourgeois family. While being dragged away, the man kicks a dog, steps on an insect and violently assaults a blind man. The Man and the Woman are reunited at her home in the fourth segment when he shows up at a party hosted by her parents. They venture outside together and attempt to make love in the garden but are again interrupted by a servant who informs the Man he has received a phone call inside. After the Man leaves the Woman to take the call, we see her alone in the garden, sublimating her desire by fellating the toe of a statue. Later, the Man sees the Woman turning her amorous attentions to another man, a much older orchestra conductor, which causes our hero to fly into a fit of rage. The fifth segment culminates with the Man returning inside and throwing things out of a second story window, including a bishop, a burning tree and a giraffe.

The epilogue follows and, even for a film full of dream logic, is a complete non-sequitur. It begins with a title card summarizing the plot of the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, in which the depraved acts of a 120 day murderous orgy are described. Bunuel then cuts to the survivors of the orgy emerging from a castle, led by a man who bears a strong resemblance to Jesus Christ. One of the victims of the orgy, a young woman in a great deal of pain, emerges just behind them. The Christ figure turns to console her and leads her back inside the castle. We then hear the young woman scream, presumably for the final time, and see the Christ figure re-emerge from the castle alone. Bunuel then abruptly cuts to the film’s final shocking image, a crucifix with long scalps dangling from it, accompanied by a blast of triumphant, religious-sounding music. We can only assume the scalps belong to the female victims of the 120 day orgy.

Bunuel’s message is plain; we have repeatedly seen the consequences of sexual repression throughout the movie and how the stifling of one’s natural impulses can lead to violent repercussions. With the final scene implying that Jesus Christ is a serial rapist and murderer, Bunuel suggests that the Catholic church is the single most repressive institution of western civilization. Of course, no description of L’Age d’Or can do justice to watching it and luxuriating firsthand in Bunuel’s awesome cinematic poetry. The film may be “about” repression but the written language is incapable of explaining the soul-stirring quality of some of the film’s best moments. One of my favorites: the Woman sits in front of her bedroom mirror, inexplicably sees the reflection of a cloudy sky behind her and feels a gust of wind seemingly blow through the mirror. On the soundtrack, we (logically) hear the sound of the wind as well as (illogically) a cowbell and a dog barking, aural traces of earlier scenes that weave together and unify various threads from Bunuel’s mad anti-narrative.

I’ll end this post with my own non-sequitur, albeit one that’s more delicious than poisonous. From his wonderful memoir My Last Sigh here is Bunuel’s personal martini recipe:

“The day before your guests arrive, put all the ingredients – glasses, gin, and shaker – in the refrigerator. Use a thermometer to make sure the ice is about twenty degrees below zero (centigrade). Don’t take anything out until your friends arrive; then pour a few drops of Noilly Prat and half a demitasse spoon of Angostura bitters over the ice. Shake it, then pour it out, keeping only the ice, which retains a faint sense of both. Then pour straight gin over the ice, shake it again and serve.”


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