Port of Forgotten Dreams: Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre
by Michael Sicinski
Can there be such a thing as a productive political fantasy? This is far from a rhetorical question, and as I revisit Aki Kaurismäki’s latest film, which is without a doubt a political film for our times, I find myself grappling with this very question. This is because the idea of what constitutes “political representation” shifted, I believe, since Kaurismäki began making films in his proletarian-modernist style—a fact of which the Finnish master is very much aware. I actually suspect that the terms of the political, and what it means to represent it, locate it, assign it agency, have quite possibly changed in a significant way, from the moment in May when Le Havre had its world premiere at Cannes, and now, six months later, as it enters commercial release. To put it another way: does Kaurismäki’s fantastical optimism appear hopelessly naïve as the Occupy movement trudges on, in the face of tear gas and rubber bullets? What exactly would a properly activist film even look like right now? To begin to answer this question, and assess Kaurismäki’s place within any tentative web of solutions, we must work backwards, to understand what Le Havre is and where it comes from.
In a certain sense, there has been, at best, a pluralistic exploration, and at worst a crisis, in the very concept of “political cinema” since the general decay of the various international New Wave cinemas of the 1960s and ‘70s. D. N. Rodowick referred to this as “the crisis of political modernism” (typified, in some senses, by Straub-Huillet, Oshima, and mid-period Godard), the increasing uncertainty that stringent form and radical content would necessarily serve to mutually reinforce one another, or more to the point, that a sturdy recipe for cinematic radicalism, regardless of social or historical context, had been achieved. In a manner of speaking, the “last man standing” from this wreckage was Fassbinder, who, by channeling his leftism through Sirkian affect, found a way forward, even when certain of the far-left pieties that the political modernists held dear were undermined, if temporarily, by terrorist excess. The ur-text for this crisis of conscience is undoubtedly Fassbinder’s contribution to the 1978 omnibus Germany in Autumn, in which the news of German special forces storming the hijacked Lufthansa flight in Mogadishu induced panic in the filmmaker that all individuals with leftist ties would soon be rounded up indiscriminately. Meanwhile, his elderly mother prattles on about the need for a new, benevolent Führer.
If there is one dominant spirit presiding over Kaurismäki’s work it’s probably Fassbinder, although it’s not always readily apparent. Aki’s love for rockabilly, film noir, and the rebel streak in classic Hollywood (Nick Ray, Sam Fuller) makes him a much more obvious kinsman of Wim Wenders. But what Kaurismäki has consistently drawn from Fassbinder, in terms of a refined formalist politic, is a way of organizing and specularizing space, of rendering power visible on the interpersonal and the “street” level—that zone that Michel de Certeau designates as the place of small “tactics” rather than grand “strategies.” Kaurismäki’s shots frame characters and their environments with a highly sophisticated simplicity, pinning them down within a geographically defined “social gest” but at the same time delineating a persistently palpable three dimensions around them. What’s more, in his editing schemes, Aki continues this delineated space as socially defined, as a network of looks and gazes, of suspicions, solicitations and entreaties. His still frames verge on portraiture, but it is always a mode of depiction activated by the social contract.
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