Good Intentions, Great Visuals

In his first feature in five years, Aki Kaurismäki struggles with utopian vision of France

“Le Havre” is a very unusual film. While it’s been criticized as more of the same from director Aki Kaurismäki, a Finn working in France, it indulges extreme stylization to a point rarely seen since Todd Haynes’ “Far From Heaven.”

Kaurismäki’s use of color goes even further back, recalling Jacques Demy’s “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” and “The Young Girls of Rochefort.” His sets are decorated in pastel blues and greens and blazing reds, and the costumes are carefully coordinated with them. At one point, protagonist Marcel Marx’s (André Wilms) brown jacket and blue shirt perfectly match the colors of the backdrop.

Kaurismäki’s status as a rock’n’roll connoisseur is evident here, but the film’s soundtrack is dominated by an orchestral score that self-consciously screams “melodrama.” The film harkens back to Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Douglas Sirk-inspired dramas, but Kaurismäki puts Fassbinder’s gloom on Prozac. In the past, the director’s optimistic austerity suggested the motto of a character in Thomas Pynchon’s novel “V.” –– “keep cool but care.” “Le Havre” throws away the “keep cool” part.

Marcel Marx is a middle-aged married man who works a shoe shiner in Le Havre, although he boasts of a bohemian past. He lives with his wife, Arletty (Finnish actress and Kaurismäki regular Kati Outinen). When Arletty lands in the hospital with a tumor, Marcel’s world goes into free fall. He meets Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), a young African refugee who smuggled himself onboard a boat. Idrissa wanted to go to London, but mistakenly wound up in Le Havre illegally.

Marcel lets the boy stay with him and hides him from the police. Clad entirely in black, Inspector Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) searches for Idrissa, and Marcel’s neighbors assist him in keeping the cops off his trail.

“Le Havre” is not the kind of film one would think of as post-Tarantino “fanboy cinema.” Yet it’s not miles away from Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive.” Both films take place in a world made of secondhand cinematic and musical quotes. There are major differences between them. With its anemic love story and relish of grisly violence, “Drive” isn’t exactly dripping with humanism. By contrast, “Le Havre” wears its heart and its social conscience on its sleeve. There’s no bloodshed in it.

All the same, Kaurismäki’s film is made of movie references. Arletty is named after the French actress most famous for Marcel Carné’s “Port of Shadows.” Her husband’s first name may be an homage to Carné. French New Wave icon Jean-Pierre Léaud drops by for a cameo. The coziness of Le Havre, as depicted by Kaurismäki, evokes ‘30s French cinema, with almost all the menace and anxiety removed.

Kaurismäki envisions a world where aging hipsters win and the French New Wave and ‘50s rock’n’roll defeat the forces of xenophobia. His ending isn’t just happy, it’s utopian. He accurately describes his film as “anyhow unrealistic.” One wonders if any French-born director –– or, even more so, any French-based director of Arab or African descent –– could make a film imagining such a benevolent vision of the country. You’d never guess from “Le Havre” how popular the extreme right-wing parties are in France.

To be fair, Kaurismäki has every right to his optimism, but his film succeeds mostly as an exercise in style. A delight to look at, it doesn’t seem particularly felt. While its politics are undoubtedly sincere, they’re hampered by the sense that the rest of the film exists entirely in quotes. The style doesn’t necessarily suit its message.

Kaurismäki was once extremely prolific. Debuting in 1981 with a film co-directed with his brother Mika, he produced a large body of work in the two decades that followed. For some reason, his pace has slowed considerably since then. “Le Havre” is his first feature since 2006’s “Lights in the Dusk.” Despite its resemblance to his previous films, one can sense Kaurismäki cramming everything he wants to say in this latest.

Perhaps Kaurismäki’s best film, 1990’s “The Match Factory Girl” is all buildup. “Le Havre” is far less measured, but it builds toward a lovely double ending. The final shot recalls the ironic happy endings of Sirk melodramas, but there’s no doubt that Kaurismäki means it. His hip posturing battles his political conscience, and the result is a draw.

Essentials:

LE HAVRE

Directed by Aki Kaurismäki

Janus Films

In French with English subtitles

Opens Oct. 21

Lincoln Plaza

1886 Broadway at 62nd St.

lincolnplazacinema.com

IFC Center

323 Sixth Ave. at W. Third St.

ifccenter.com

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