Sunday, September 25, 2011

Short Take: "Le Havre" (***)

While walking out of my first film of the day, I caught a couple of older viewers remarking that "they don't make films like that anymore". In quite a few ways they are definitely right. Within moments of "Le Havre", you can tell there's an old-school style being brought to the table. Due merely to my own experience, my mind immediately flocks to "West Side Story". The color pallette, especially in the nighttime scenes, reminds me fondly of the old technicolor conversions of the past. The glow of evening is given this greenish blue tint, and thoughts skew immediately romantic of the old days of cinema. In spite of that, "Le Havre" bares just as many signs of today as it does of the past.

Previously pegged at Cannes as the Palme D'Or frontrunner until "The Tree of Life" proved pundits wrong, "Le Havre" focuses on an elderly shoeshiner named Marcel Marx, living in Le Havre, Normandy. His wife has been growing sicker and sicker each day, to the point where she's placed in the hospital quite gravely. Meanwhile elsewhere in the city, Inspector Monet is put onto the case of a bunch of black immigrants, one young boy of which escapes quite easily from the bumbling police. The boy seeks refuge with Marcel, who inexplicably decides to help the young boy out of the kindness of his heart. If it doesn't sound in keeping with the regular stories of today, there's a random and overstayed rock concert towards the end of the film. 

It's a very simple film that works for just a few reasons. If this review is short, it's because there truthfully isn't that much to comment on. Pretty straightforward, and much of what's seen, however enjoyable, is nothing you haven't seen before elsewhere. Director Aki Kaurismaki's approach is much of the joy here. That feeling like your watching something that's been preserved and brought back to life echoes the film itself at times, most especially the ending. There are plenty of issues of trust here and there. Monet has this fundamental sort of dislike for Marcel, and Marcel doesn't discount it. 

Marx is just as old-fashioned as the film. Being a modern day shoeshiner, it's somewhat hard not to be. You're occasionally brought back to the fact that the film is set in present day, despite a technique towards the contrary. The opening scene where Marx is somewhat indifferent to a patron being gunned down, so long as he payed him beforehand, says enough about what kind of man he is. That's never once forgotten. He's a quite frank individual, often to really hilarious effect. "I'm the family albino," he remarks about halfway through the film. Simple line, and funny for a very simple reason, but it works. Like I said. This isn't a reinvention of the wheel. Simply a modification. 

There are plenty of odd moves in the film, many of which work. A few don't, but it'd be hard to tell in the theater I was in. The elderly audience here in Portsmouth goes head over heels for this kind of thing. My personal favorite of these quirks has nothing to do with the dialogue, but a change in lighting and sound that pays off wonderfully. The film loses its way on one prominent sequence towards the end and it really overstays its welcome in that moment, almost derailing the film. The ending, however, brings it back into properly grounded waters. It's an ending that I get the feeling the audience misunderstood, but I thankfully didn't. In one light, it's an average ending. In the right light, it's a pretty damn good one.

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