You know how it is at the end of a year – many newspapers ask people to nominate their favourite or the best, in their opinion, books, films etc of the past year. Sometimes I’ve agreed with them, sometimes I’ve felt that their choices have been so predictable (well-known, well-publicised books yet, who knows, maybe it really was their favourite) but often I’ve felt well, I wish they’d asked me! For don’t we always feel that we want to talk about that book or film that we have thought was so good? Well, it finally happened last month, and I was asked to write a short piece about my personal favourite of 2012 – by the Scottish Review. (The link is so that you can read other people’s choices, many of which were far from predictable, and all the more interesting, so I feel – wonderful to see Carol Craig, Ronald Frame, Tom Hubbard and Michael Sandel chosen by other Scottish Review contributors).
After seeing Le Havre earlier last year I was so impressed I wanted to write about it but as so often happens I didn’t find the time to do it. But after being asked, it did not take me long to decide that this was going to be my choice for 2012. Four hundred words was the limit, so I had to trim it just a little bit. But when I looked at the email again I saw that I hadn’t read it properly and the word count was 200, not 400! So I had to do quite a drastic bit of cutting and rewriting.
After making the effort of writing the 400 words though, it seems a pity that it should languish on my computer, so I’ve put it up here.
Le Havre directed by Aki Kaurismäki.
Set in the eponymous French coastal town, Marcel, a middle aged man, encounters a young African illegal immigrant, Idrissa, who is on the run from the police. Marcel helps him, but Inspector Monet is determined to find him. At the same time Marcel’s wife becomes ill and is taken into hospital.
The theme of illegal immigration places it firmly in the present, yet it has a feeling of the fifties about it, old cars, small apartments with basic furniture, stove, wardrobe, table. As in the best French films, the focus is on mood and nuance, while its profound understatement perhaps comes from its Finnish director. The camera shots do not flit around in the way we are used to in most films, giving it an astonishing authenticity, for this leisurely perception seems to reflect the way we actually see things.
The understatement means that you never quite know what is going to happen. Devoid of any predictability, the film is humorous, ironic, moving and serious at the same time. It uses humour and irony to depict profound truths. Initially, Inspector Monet seems to have only one focus and one facial expression too, unsmiling and suspicious. He is elegantly dressed, being French, in black belted raincoat, black gloves and black hat and you wonder if his slightly disdainful demeanour is going to erupt into fury – although it never does, because he is, after all, French. Imagine this well-groomed French policeman entering a café, and all conversation stops. He sits down at a table and places a pineapple beside him. It is absurd, yet potentially tragic. Will Idrissa be discovered? Will Marcel’s wife get better?
The effect of authenticity is perhaps created through a mixture of the way the film is shot, the starkness of the surroundings, the meandering and tangential nature of encounters between people, and the way that emotions are not so much shown in people’s expressions but displayed in the surroundings, the cafés, the harbour, the streets, stripped of any adornment. But these minimalist lives are rich with familiar human qualities of routine, hopes and fears, small gains and no surging ambitions. The shift in Inspector Monet’s attitude is so subtle that it’s impossible to pinpoint it. But to say any more would spoil the ending. Perhaps the secret lies in the positioning of the pineapple on the café table.