Aki Kaurismaki’s surreal comedy about refugees in France premiered at Cannes on Tuesday, with the irreverent Finn sticking his fingers up at the irrational fear of foreigners sweeping Europe.
"Le Havre", in competition for the Palme d’Or, is set in the French port of the same name and tells the story of African child migrant Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) trying to reach his mother in London while being hunted by police.
Idrissa escapes from the port when police — in riot gear and toting machine guns as per interior ministry orders — turn up to detain migrant families discovered starving in a cargo container.
Police try to find the child, suspected of Al-Qaeda links according to the local newspaper, but he is rescued by former author Marcel Marx (Andre Wilms), a Bohemian who now works as a shoe-shiner in self-imposed exile from Paris.
Marx and his friends from the docks come together to help Idrissa, including through organizing a concert by local ageing rocker Little Bob (aka Roberto Piazza).
Le Havre is the Memphis, Tennessee, of France and Little Bob is "the Elvis of this kingdom as long as Johnny Hallyday stays in Paris and even then it would be a nice fight," said Kaurismaki.
The film is in French, a language that Kaurismaki doesn’t understand, and played by mostly French actors, who he "trusted to say their words right," the maker of "The Man without a Past" told journalists.
Jean-Pierre Darroussin is the sympathetic policeman Monet, while Marx’s sick wife Arletty is played by Kaurismaki favourite Kati Outinen, who had to dub her voice twice to get the French right.
The actors’ stripped down performances tell a simple story, lit from the side in typical Kaurismaki style that is also homage to such French directing greats as Robert Bresson and Melville.
Despite the film being set in the 21st century, almost all props are vintage, with everything from record players to sweet tins harking back to the 1950s, as well as classic cars "because cars can exist after their birthday."
The movie is also shot on a 1974 camera that was used by Swedish master Ingmar Bergman, Kaurismaki says: "He shot two films with it, we shot 18, so it’s not his camera anymore."
"It could have been in any other European country except maybe Finland or Sweden because nobody is in such despair" that they want to go there, Kaurismaki said.
"The problem (of immigration) is of course huge and I honestly don’t have an answer," said Kaurismaki who started research on the film the last time he was in Cannes to present "Lights in the Dusk" in 2006.
"I drove along the coast in Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, and Le Havre was the last hope," he told a press conference during which he briefly managed to take a few puffs from a cigarette despite a ban on indoor smoking.
"There is beautiful architecture but it was bombed down by the allies in the war. This is a nice city but I cannot shoot in modern architecture, my camera doesn’t like it. My camera wants to kill your mama."
Kaurismaki, who admitted to becoming softer in the "old age" of his 54 years, finally managed to find part of the city unscathed by bombs and then filming could begin.
"The more skeptical and cynical I get the more softer are my films," Kaurismaki said. "I can’t help it. I start to be tender in my old age. I even start to like my characters."