In a world where films are increasingly becoming homogenised, Aki Kaurismaki stands out as a true original. He's a self-confessed auteur who sticks to his roots and to his unusual romanticised view of the world. Sure, his big cult hit, Leningrad Cowboys Go America, with its mix of music, humour and razor sharp haircuts, was way over the top, yet it's largely been his more dramatic films that have struck a chord outside his native Finland.
His latest movie, Le Havre, is the first in a trilogy of harbour-set movies, the 54-year-old filmmaker explains. It's also his first attempt at being overtly political as it deals with illegal immigrants in Europe.
“The film could have been set anywhere in Europe,” Kaurismaki says. “Though maybe not in Finland, even refugees don't want to come to Finland,” he jokes, adding that he has made enough films there anyway, and needed a change. “The most obvious places are on the Mediterranean, Spain, Italy and Greece, but after I drove around I couldn't find anywhere I liked.”
He settled on Le Havre (which also translates as haven) after he found the French industrial harbourside city had an old neighbourhood. “It was one of the few areas of the city that wasn't bombed by the Allies,” he notes dryly.
In any case, whether it be France or Finland, the film takes place in the Kaurismaki universe, where, as usual, he manages to mix his spare visual style and sardonic wit to produce a quirky, melancholic drama that successfully hits both the heart strings and the funny bone.
The story follows Marcel Marx (André Wilms), a former Paris Bohemian writer and now a shoeshine man, who with the help of his neighbours, protects a young African refugee (Blondin Miguel) and attempts to reunite him with his family in England. His wife Arletty (Kati Outinen) becomes gravely ill around the same time so that it seems all hope is lost. However, Kaurismaki wanted a happy ending and delivers a couple of miracles.
“So much bad in the world,” he says in his blunt, brief way of talking, which is not unlike his characters. “I wanted to put some love.”
Is he religious? “Not in the same way as John Travolta. I just woke up one morning and thought there are so few films with happy endings, what about two? So I said, 'Let's do it!”
His decision to shoot in France suited him for various reasons. “It's the home country of cinema; in 1895 cinema was invented in France by the Lumière brothers,” he notes. He was therefore able to draw on his wide knowledge of early French cinema. He holds Jean Gabin as one of his favourite actors, he was greatly influenced by the comic-humanist tradition of Jean Renoir and Jacques Tati, and he named the character of Arletty after the singer and actress who championed the French working class in the 1930s and '40s. At the same time, he was able to draw on his own 1992 French film, La Vie de Bohème, as it features the same Marcel Marx character, also played by Wilms.
“I wanted to keep the same character I had 20 years before,” Kaurismaki explains. “Now he's a loser—he was a loser already but now he accepts it. We know what happened to him. When we made La Vie de Bohème André looked very young. Everybody was young except the ones who are dead.”
Wilms is part of the Kaurismaki family as are the crew and many of the actors (most notably Outinen) the eccentric Finn surrounds himself with. The person sadly missing, though, is Kaurismaki's true muse, Matti Pellonpää, who in La Vie de Bohème had played the lead barfly Rodolfo. (He was also unforgettable as the taxi driver in the Kaurismaki-produced Helsinki segment of Jim Jarmusch's Night on Earth.) Rodolfo was not unlike the actor himself, a supposed true Bohemian who was of no fixed address and largely lived in Helsinki bars. He died at 44 of a heart attack and there's no doubting Kaurismaki has never gotten over it. “I'd like to make a movie with Rodolfo too, but Matti is gone,” he says ruefully.
Kaurismaki admits his main character is always some kind of alter ego. “When I write I always write about myself, always. If I would say something else I would lie. I don't analyse the films I've done. They are history; they're gone.”
His friend's death hasn't stopped him drinking or smoking. He refuses to make films set after 2007 when smoking was outlawed in bars. Kaurismaki is not someone who likes being told how to behave and certainly sticks by his humanist beliefs. When his most successful movie, the Cannes Grand Prix-winner, The Man Without a Past, was Oscar-nominated for best foreign film in 2003, he refused to attend the ceremony and subsequently declined Finland's nomination for 2006's Lights in the Dusk as a protest against President Bush's foreign policy. In 2011, Le Havre won the Cannes critics' prize though strangely missed out on other awards.
Kaurismaki gained his film education by sitting in archives and film clubs and immersing himself in the films of Nouvelle Vague filmmakers while his love of the American cinema of the '40s and '50s – particularly Howard Hawks – is evident in both Le Havre and La Vie de Bohème. He started making films by obtaining a film grant.
“I tried to go to film school but they wouldn't let me in. They said I was too cynical. They thought I'd spoil the other people.”
He began by collaborating with his older brother, Mika, who had studied at a film school in Munich, but they quickly developed their separate styles, with Mika opting for a more commercial, less personal approach. The brothers became a two-person publicity team for Finnish cinema, though for the past decade Mika has been based in Brazil and has developed more international concerns. His latest documentary, Mama Africa, about Miriam Makeba, is worth looking out for.
Meanwhile, Aki says he knows where he will shoot the second film in his harbour trilogy. “Now I only make one film every five years; I'm getting lazy. The next one's called The Barber of Vigo and I will shoot it in Galicia, Spain. So I'll make another in five years and a third in 10 years and then I can retire.”
Watch 'Le Havre' now