Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 19, 2011

Three films of note

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:14 pm

Opening at the IFC Center on Friday, Aki Kaurismaki’s “Le Havre” is a powerful protest against the treatment of undocumented immigrants dramatized through the bonds forged between the citizens of a seaside neighborhood and a young West African boy eluding the cops. Departing from Kaurismaki’s bleak vision of society, this is a film that celebrates the persistence of fraternité in a country where liberté and égalité are rapidly eroding.

When a night watchman on the docks discovers a group of West Africans locked inside a massive container ordinarily used to haul cargo, he calls the cops who treat them as al Qaeda operatives. Despite having machine guns pointed at them, one member of the group, a boy named Idrissa (Blondin Miguel, a non-professional discovered by Kaurismaki in a Paris suburb), bolts toward freedom—not understanding that he is in Le Havre rather than London, the destination sought by the immigrants.

When strolling by the docks, Marcel Marx (André Wilms), a sixtyish shoeshine man, discovers Idrissa underneath a wharf up to his chest in the water. Are you hungry, Marcel asks? The boy nods yes. That is the beginning of a relationship that puts Marcel at great risk. He and his closest friends, who operate small shops in the neighborhoods, or workers who enjoy drinking at the local pub with him, are “old school” French of the sort that would likely vote for the CP and might have fought in the Resistance if old enough.

Marcel is happily married to Arletty, who the day before Marcel decides to shelter Idrissa is admitted to the hospital to undergo an arduous treatment for a cancerous tumor in her stomach. Arletty is played by Kati Outinen, a member of Kaurismaki’s long-time ensemble who starred in his 1990 “The Match Factory Girl”, a dark tale seemingly inspired by Theodore Dreiser about a female worker lashing out at sexism and class oppression.

Although of French origin, André Wilms is also part of Kaurismaki’s ensemble who starred as Rodolfo the penniless poet in “La Vie de Bohème”, his brilliant adaptation of the Henri Murger novel also used as a libretto for Puccini’s opera. One wonders if Kaurismaki was alluding to Rodolfo in “Le Havre” since Marcel mentions to Idrissa at one point that he led a bohemian existence when young. Indeed, there is an element of that lifestyle that he has retained based on the evidence of a record collection that includes Blind Willie McTell. After returning home from shining shoes, Marcel catches Idrissa in the act of listening to “Statesboro Blues” on his record player. There is no dialog at this point, only a knowing and sympathetic meeting of the eyes between the two in typically Kaurismaki minimalist fashion.

Described as a “political fairy tale” in the press notes, “Le Havre” is a throwback to classic French cinema. Perhaps as a result of operating far from the frigid terrain of his native Finland, Kaurismaki has allowed himself to warm up to both the city and citizens of a France yielding a story one part reality and one part imagination. It is a Le Havre that is both beautiful and a bit idealized. With a soundtrack studded by French cabaret songs from the 1930s, its proximity to the docks, and its lovable and somewhat dotty characters, you cannot help but think of L’Atalante.

You will also be reminded of another classic that involved a paperless refugee seeking freedom. Despite being made in Hollywood, “Casablanca” is as quintessentially French (and idealized) as “Le Havre”. It also includes a cop determined to nab the undocumented alien who will remind you of Claude Rains.

Although I might be biased in considering Aki Kaurismaki the most gifted film-maker in the world today, I offer my strongest recommendations for “Le Havre”. This is a film that Kaurismaki described in the press notes:

The European cinema has not much addressed the continuously worsening financial, political, and above all, moral crisis that has lead to the ever-unsolved question of refugees; refugees trying to find their way into the EU from abroad, and their irregular, often substandard treatment.

I have no answer to this problem, but I still wanted to deal with this matter in this anyhow unrealistic film.

‘Nuff said.

After seeing films like “Catfish” and “Exit Through the Gift Shop” that were highly touted as pushing the envelope of the documentary genre but failed to deliver, I am thrilled to announce that director Eric Leiser has made a film that not only succeeds as an artistic experiment but one that has a poignant social message for an age of diminished expectations. The timing of the opening of “Glitch in the Grid” tomorrow at Cinema Village in New York could not be more appropriate since its main characters have been grappling with the same economic crisis that their peers are calling attention to in Zuccotti Park. Eric Leiser tells us in the press notes:

Glitch in the Grid is my third feature film and second live action and stopmotion narrative feature. The film was created by working almost non-stop, at times collaborating joyfully with others, but mostly alone for two years. I worked and lived between the US and UK during the worst of the economic recession of 2008/2009 and the feelings, financial limitations and oppressions of this period put a heavy stamp on the film, while also liberating it from certain preconceptions that often stifle the creative spirit. This is a personal, magical realist film between documentary and fiction with a vision of expanded cinema that I feel is rich with spiritual surrealism.

Esthetically, “Glitch in the Grid” is an amazing accomplishment. Mixing claymation type effects, time-lapse photography and collages of still photos and motion picture, the net effect is unlike anything I have seen in recent film. The closest analogy would be a mixture of Buñuel’s “Un Chien Andalou”, Walt Disney’s “Fantasia”, and Richard Lester’s “Hard Day’s Night”. Switching seamlessly between the main characters hanging around a run-down apartment in Los Angeles discussing their job prospects in quasi-mumblecore fashion and dazzling animation techniques, “Glitch in the Grid” suggests that the challenge facing the characters and humanity at large is to bridge the gap between the mundane and the transcendent—admittedly a daunting task in a protracted economic downturn.

Of crucial importance to the film’s success is Jeff Leiser’s film score (Jeff is the director’s brother). Influenced by Philip Glass/Steve Reich minimalism, it is the perfect accompaniment to the visual feast on the screen.

I should mention that I chose the word “quasi-mumblecore” deliberately. While Eric Leiser chose to describe the quotidian problems of its main characters, which were exactly what they faced in real life, the film is absent the narcissism that runs rampant throughout this genre. I have always viewed mumblecore as a kind of denial of social problems and wonder if it is viable any longer in a period that demands that young film-makers take an unstinting view of the world around them. As such, Eric Leiser blazes a trail for others to follow.

Finally, a brief note on “You are All Captains” that opens today at Anthology Film Archive in NY. This is a post-colonialist type film that will remind you of “Even the Rain”, a film about the arrogance of Spanish film-makers trying to make a movie about Columbus in Bolivia, ignoring the present-day problems of its all indigenous cast who are swept up in protests over water privatization.

“You are All Captains” is much more modest. It is about a young film-maker played by Oliver Laxe, the director, who goes to Tangiers, Morocco to get young boys from an orphanage to take part in a low to no-budget movie. His goal is to “improve” their lives after the fashion of “Born into Brothels”.

Laxe’s communication skills are poor and the boys have trouble understanding his goal, especially since he has no clear idea of what kind of film he wants to make. Mostly he comes across like the hapless Thierry Guetta of “Exit Through the Gift Shop” who uses his video camera obsessively and to no clear artistic end. Not only is Laxe resented by the children he wants to “lift up”, the denizens of Tangiers don’t appreciate being filmed.

While this is an interesting concept, there is not enough there to sustain the film. It only becomes interesting when Laxe is “fired” by the boys who then make their own film about an outing in the countryside that has the advantage of a point of view even if it is not exactly connected to the rest of the film.

Recommended for those intrigued by post-colonial and post-modernist tropes.


  1. Louis, I’d certainly go along with your praise for Aki Kaurismaki. He’s an unpretentious, instinctive director who makes films like real painters paint or writers write. Commerce doesn’t come first for him. His characters aren’t heroic. They’re just human, which is saying a lot as things go today.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — October 20, 2011 @ 4:17 pm

  2. That Blind Willie McTell video actually has a photo of Ragtime guitarist Blind Blake. Not that I’m complaining, I love the music of both, but Blind Willie McTell was a 12-string bluesman, Blind Blake a 6-string ragtime player! 🙂

    Comment by negative potential — October 20, 2011 @ 10:54 pm

  3. Actually, Rodolfo was played by Matti Pellonpää in La Vie de Bohème, while Wilms played Marcel. Le Havre is indeed meant to be something of a sequel to the earlier film, with Wilms reprising the role.

    Comment by vms — October 24, 2011 @ 8:22 pm

  4. I just saw Le Havre last night and it is a masterpiece of cinema in evoking the common humanity we all have, unless it is buried by hatred engendered by frustration and anger. Add to this that the protagonist is named Marcel Marx and almost the first thing he says in the first sequence is “money moves in the shadows.” I strongly encourage everyone to see it.

    Comment by uh...clem — January 24, 2012 @ 9:15 pm

  5. […] real quality. His answer was Aki Kaurismaki’s “Le Havre”, a film he “really loved”, as did I. ( When the Hollywood Reporter began mentioning that it might receive an Oscar for best foreign […]

    Pingback by The Cinema of Cruelty » CounterPunch: Tells the Facts, Names the Names — January 30, 2015 @ 8:29 am

  6. […] had real quality. His answer was Aki Kaurismaki’s “Le Havre”, a film he “really loved”, as did I. ( When the Hollywood Reporter began mentioning that it might receive an Oscar for best foreign […]

    Pingback by “White God,” “The Turin Horse” and “Au Hasard Balthazar” | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — January 30, 2015 @ 4:37 pm

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