I may have been working on Good Friday, but with Mr Blue Sky now edited and ready to go, I had a mini foreign film festival planned for the three-day Easter holiday. Yesterday, Day One, we saw Le Havre, a French-Finish comedy-drama, and Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, a Turkish police procedural. Le Havre is another one of those films, like The Kid With A Bike, that has been too heavily trailered at the Curzon chain, which really can start to erode the experience of seeing the actual film. I certainly knew what to expect from the story, which is about an old French man befriending and sheltering an African boy. Written and directed by the Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismäki, greatly revered but whose back catalogue has sadly passed me by (it is only in the last 15 or so years that I’ve been obsessed by foreign cinema, so I still have a lot of catching up to do), the style of Le Havre appears to be his trademark. The drama is stilted and staged, with characters speaking, or declaiming, in aphorisms, and often framed so that they face the camera. (This makes it very easy to cut up into a trailer.)
I was captivated by it. Un homage to the style of Robert Bresson, it tells a disarmingly simple story – man takes in illegal immigrant while wife is ill in hospital – but imbues it with all sorts of meaning. The acting is not naturalistic, in that it feels “acted”, but at the same time, Le Havre feels utterly authentic. Kaurismäki uses real locations – specifically, the dour, ancient docks of the port itself, and the shanty-like housing around it – but gives them a hyperreal sheen, using neon signs and bursts of colour. The very fact that the run-down cafe bar that acts as a hub to the dockside community is called “La Moderne” is a brilliant visual joke. It has been described as a “comedy” but most of the laughs are in the trailer; the rest is actually rather grave. But that’s not a complaint. In the main roles of man and boy, André Wilms and Blondin Miguel are superbly affecting (the latter in his first role, apparently a non-actor, but all the better as a boy who escapes from a shipping container full of Senegalese refugees and finds himself adrift and on the run in a foreign land), while Finnish actor Kati Outinen brings deadpan pathos to the dutiful but possibly dying wife Arletty. Incidentally, this character’s name, a direct nod to the iconic 1940s-50s French actress, is typical of Kaurismäki’s playfulness. Wilms’ character is called Marcel Marx; a nosy neighbour is played in cameo by Jean-Pierre Léaud, the 14-year-old star of 400 Blows, another film about a boy on the run from the police; and I’m sure there’s other stuff I didn’t spot.
It’s a lovely film, moving and witty, and you can taste the salt of the sea air.
I had high hopes for, but less foreknowledge of (I think I saw the trailer once), Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, a film heaped with praise from a director already lauded, Nuri Bilge Seylan. I saw his film Uzak a few years ago and thought it was phenomenal, a massively understated look at the strained relationship between two brothers in Istanbul, so that was a good start. But I couldn’t really go on with this one. I read that it’s “Checkovian” and is as filled with references to Checkov as Le Havre is with references to French cinema, but I know little of the Russian playwright, so this is no help to me. I liked the look of Anatolia, especially the beginning, which takes place at night, during the police search for a body in the steppes of rural Anatolia, and where the action is lit pretty much exclusively by headlights. It’s hard on the eyes, I warn you now. But it gives these scenes a naturalism that puts you right there at the centre of the work. I also enjoyed the banter in the car between the various officers; it had a Tarantino quality to it, with mundane chit-chat about buffalo milk yoghurt.
However, somewhere along the road, the film lost me. The search for the body goes on and frustratingly on, with no sign of the sun coming up at any point, and in fact, that seems to be the intention of the film: to show how boring police work can be. The party stops at the house of the mayor of a tiny village that only just about has electricity, and they eat a lovely-looking feast, then sort of doze off when the power cuts out. There’s more conversation, some of it mundane, other stories more meaningful, and then, finally, they find the body and it’s the next day. The film climaxes, if that’s the word, with an autopsy, about which I will reveal nothing. This film is 158 minutes long, and it feels like it. I don’t mind admitting I fell in and out of a sort of half-doze in parts, and that’s not good, is it? However, I appreciated the humour in the writing, and I’m sure it’s an authentic portrait of the ultra-male world of the Turkish police. There is only one significant female character, and she is the daughter of the mayor, who appears as a spectral vision, lit by a lamp, serving tea to the men; I’m sure this means something profound, but I was as tired as the men were at this point.
Ultimately, Once Upon A Time In Anatolia just didn’t grab me. It made me want to watch Uzak again, though.
Right, what’s next? Ah yes, A Cat In Paris from France, and Headhunters from Norway. I will report back tomorrow.