Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre

See Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre, but don’t see it if you’re sleepy. You might doze off like I did and its quiet, humanist charms might sneak past you. I have to admit they almost got away from me, but I found myself still thinking about this odd little film the next day even though I missed chunks of the beginning of it. Basically it’s about a broken down shoeshine man named Marcel whose life seems to take a turn for the better when he dedicates himself, with the help of an odd assortment of neighbors, to protecting a Gabonese boy being hunted by the local immigration authorities. It’s not really about the right or wrong of illegal immigration, it’s more about how reaching out to help a person in need even when you’re just scraping by can be ennobling.

I also caught up with Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In which turned out not to be quite what I expected. I thought it would be a little more flamboyant and it is odd and creepy on paper, but it’s so matter of fact in execution, it only haunts you when you start to think about the ramifications of what happens on screen. Antonio Banderas plays a surgeon whose advances in skin replacement have been made by working secretly on a woman (Elena Anaya) whom he has held captive in his home, a woman whom he has made to look similar to his dead wife. The story then flashes back 6 years to tell the rather disturbing story of who the woman is and how it is she came to become the doctor’s prisoner. Honestly, I’m still not quite sure what to make of this one. I’m still thinking about it.

That’s all from me this weekend. Now it’s your turn. Has anyone seen anything worth talking about? Were any of you among the millions who showed up for the not-very-satisfying Paranormal Activity 3? How about Martha Marcy May Marlene?

36 Responses to “Le Havre”

  1. I saw two movies this weekend– “Take Shelter”, and “The Three Musketeers” in 3D (and yes, I only saw it for the “Star Wars” trailer, and apparently everyone else in my theater was the same way– I think I was one of the only ones to sit through the whole movie). While the latter film is rather obviously trash, I was actually more disappointed by the Nichols/Shannon film, despite being tremendously impressed with the work they and everyone else invovled did. The direction is marvelously nuanced and restrained, treating the actors and the story of one man’s slow and suprisingly cogent descent into schizophrenia with a degree of sensitivity that you very rarely see with movies of this ilk (“A Beautiful Mind”, anyone?). What threatens to derail it all, however, is the ending, which I won’t spoil here, but for anyone who’s seen the movie… please tell me I’m not the only one who called “bullshit”.

    I’m curious about “Martha Marcy May Marlene”. I had it confused with “Higher Ground” for a while. Probably the presence of cults and John Hawkes in both.

  2. This was a very quiet week for Lucille and I. With so much writing on my plate for the countown I really couldn’t venture far from the house, and not until the weekend were we able to get out. We only got to see a single film (on Saturday night) and then on Sunday we attended the week’s big event: a concert featuring world class English soprano Dame Emma Kirkby singing early music, with renowed Scottish lute player Jacob Lindberg at her side. Named “Love Songs, Lute Solos & Laments” the spirited and often beautiful program was staged in the lovely Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church at 73rd Street, and featured music written by John Danyel, Daniel Bacheler, Robert Johnson, Thomas Morley, Claudio Monteverdi, Barbara Strozzi and others.

    Few classical or opera afficionados have even heard of British ”Queen of Early Music” Kirkby, much less have been aware that she is considered one of the ten greatest sopranos of all-time according to BBC Music magazine. A former classics student at Oxford and English teacher, Kirkby made her mark as a soloist with little-known renaissance and baroque repetory, and in 2007 was appointed “Dame Commander” of the British Empire in the Queen’s birthday honor’s list. The soothing timbre and controlled vibrato of Kirkby’s expressive voice was magnificently complemented by the seductive tone of the lute, which Lindberg strummed with his fingertips on an instrument several hundred years old. Between Kirkby’s solos, which he underscored with his gentle accompaniment known in the baroque period as basso continuo, Lindberg offered some exquisite solo work of his own. The concert ran for two hours with a single intermission and an encore. I plan to have a formal review of it up at the site on Friday.

    Lucille and I saw just a single film in theatres this week:

    Martha Marcy May Marlene ** 1/2 (Saturday night) Angelika Film Center

    The film is about paranoia and it’s built around a potentially fascinating premise, but it’s a turgid experience to sit through, as it lumbers along with no real story structure, a dank physical look, and an unsatisfactory conclusion. Elizabeth Olson in the central role is the one bright spot, but even she can’t save this tedious picture.

    Craig, I hope you ultimately come in with a favorable response to THE SKIN I LIVE IN, but I know this one seems to have been more devisive than any recent Almodovar.

  3. I haven’t watercoolered in a long while, mainly because I got sorta busy back in September when I got married and then went on a honeymoon. No, seriously, I am now officially off the market permanently. It was sort of exhausting and very intense (in a wonderful way), so I’ve stayed away from the comments for a while.

    Anyway, funny thing, but I comment here tonight because I can’t believe Bob and I apparently agree on something. No offense to Bob, and I’m sure he’s well aware of this but we have differed before on just about everything so I felt the need to vindicate his post. I too saw Take Shelter and was mesmerized by it until the last 2 minutes, which left me equally frustrated and perplexed. Perplexed, because I felt the last two minutes undermined everything the film had been doing so well right up to that point, and perplexed because Nichols builds to that ending all along yet I can’t see why he went there at all. There are admittedly a couple of poorly telegraphed plot devices that I didn’t like, but otherwise this is a great film, minus said ending. It’s definitely worth seeing, as long as you accept that the trailer spoils all the amazing effects shots. I can see why the marketing stooges jammed them all into the trailer, but it’s sad to see so many great dramatic moments spoiled.

    And people wonder why I typically don’t watch trailers.

  4. I almost forgot, but I also saw Drive a second time this weekend and it’s growing on me. I was a bit tepid on it the first time but I liked it more the second time through.

    Bob, I’m curious: did you think the live action, non-CGI-centric aspects of the 3D in the SW trailer worked or not? Since it wasn’t shot in 3D, Lucas is taking a big risk by doing it after the fact.

  5. Joel– with the risk of possibly spoiling a bit of the ending, I don’t mind the second to last minute, say. It’s the very last that bothers me. Say– that last moment with the daughter, on the beach, it really impressed me as an illustration of the awful fear that those with mental illnesses have of passing on their condition, something that the film explores at great length with the mother. If that had been the ending, I would’ve applauded it. But the bit with the wife– yeah, it undermines the whole MO of the film up to that point, showing how somebody can be gripped and compelled by an awful mental illness like this, even while they realize it’s not real. I reccomend the film for the vast majority of its running time, but that last minute. God.

    I am anxious to see Nichols’ previous film, and will check out whatever he comes up with next. But it is a shame, how much the ending hamstrings an otherwise great effort.

    As for the TPM trailer– obviously all you get are bits and glimpses, but in technical terms the 3D looked great. I’m more interested in seeng how it plays out in longer doses, as that’s where 3D lives and dies. Interestingly, the live-action stuff (regular talking and fighting alike) had a more pronounced look to it than the CGI flying stuff– perhaps 3D just works better with a more spartan, static approach to visuals, which is why I think something like the SW conversions will work. It’s not like trying to turn, say, the “Bourne” movies into 3D.

  6. That was the part I was talking about too, I was just guessing at the amount of time it ran for.

    As for SW, if any movies are going to hold up to being converted long after the fact, it would be these (especially TPM). There’s so much CGI to begin with that they should be able to fake it reasonably well, I just wondered if the live action stuff looks realistic with all the non-live action around it. A number of shots in Clone Wars looked obviously matted to me, as though the actors were literally walking on a treadmill with the background scrolling behind them like a 70’s-era Hanna-Barbera cartoon. I would guess converting it to 3D would either improve that significantly or make it stand out even more.

  7. Over the weekend I saw Weekend, which was very satisfying and more than touching. I was impressed by the cinematic richness of this otherwise low-budget film. The handheld camera technique was not gimmicky but, rather, quite effective because those parts were framed well and interspersed with good mastershots, longshots, and transtitions not to mention effective use of sound. The intimacy of the film is astonishing but not sappy or melodramatic. The entire experience is very unHollywoodlike and quite organic. A must see as far as I’m concerned

  8. Joel, a good barometer of the effectiveness of the 3D, I’d say, is a shot they have in the trailer of Natalie Portman in kabuki-queen mode sitting in her throne room. There’s no CGI elements at all in that shot, and the stereoscopic effect works pretty well. For a live-action/CGI contrast, there’s a few shots of the Jedi fighting droids that have plenty of digital elements with the actors, and that works well, too.

    The funny thing about 3D– I think it works better when you’re dealing with immediate environments with people and everything, even when you convert it after the fact. Too much 3D in stuff like pod-racing or dog-fighting, say, might look a little artificial because it makes the big places feel smaller, like a diorama. What’s nice about all the more close-quarter stuff is that you can have the 3D effect without it feeling quite so artificial.

    Pierre, I havent’ heard anybody comment on the technical qualities of the new “Weekend”, and I have to say that description makes me curious about it.

  9. Pierre, I havent’ heard anybody comment on the technical qualities of the new “Weekend”, and I have to say that description makes me curious about it.

    I guess my point is this: When one sees a low-budget film that’s an early directorial effort, one that’s focused on intimate activity and using a handheld camera, it’s unexpected to see mature craftsmanship and directorial judgment. However, because the film’s director has spent time in the Hollywood trenches as an editor, there’s a professionalism that comes across on the screen.

  10. The new WEEKEND is one of the ten best films of 2011, methinks.

  11. Congrats, Joel.

    I watched The Lady Vanished on Friday night, another excellent and under-rated Hitchcock. Then on Saturday I finally got around to seeing Moneyball, which I really enjoyed, and I thought Pitt and the rest of the cast did a great job.

  12. Joel and Bob, I have to confess I’m perplexed by your issues with the ending of Take Shelter. I was a little unsure about the ambiguity of it all, but ultimately it worked. Anyway, this wasn’t a plot driven film for me, it was really more of a character piece about masculinity along similar lines to Shotgun Stories.

    Anyway, I’ll have to hear more specifically about what you didn’t like, feel free to spoil, before I can respond further.

    Sam, I’m bummed you didn’t buy into the excellence that was Martha Marcy Marlene. I don’t think the structure was a problem at all, rather one of the film’s highlights. The way it bounced back and forth between then and now so that it was not always clear right away which was which and indeed you begin to wonder by the end whether the THEN really unfolded as Martha recalls it was a key to the whole thing. We’re witnessing this woman’s profound identity crisis where the separation between past and present, real and imagined, remembered and dreamed has broken down. The conclusion was perfect.

    Having said that, I also found it a difficult sit mostly because Martha was a very difficult character to warm up to. You wanted her to get “better” but you’re left with the realization that she was kind of a difficult bitch even before she was taken into the cult. Sarah Paulson’s character, though she’s portrayed as shallow and materialist, actually winds up coming across as the most sympathetic. In the end though, I like the film’s honest and its willingness to feature a difficult character in the lead. She’s neither a saint nor a monster, she seems like a real person.

    Public congrats on your official hitching, Joel. As a first hand witness, I can tell everyone that it was a terrific ceremony that moved even this cold-hearted misanthrope of a hermit. No small task!

    Pierre, glad you caught up with Weekend. I just wish heterosexual romances were handled with half the sensitivity, intimacy and honesty as Weekend.

    Alison, I love The Lady Vanishes. Sure, it’s early Hitchcock and he sticks pretty closely to the original material, but it has that trademark Hitchcock twinkle in its eye – that ability to movie smoothly from humor into genuine suspense and back again.

  13. Ok I just rewatched the ending of Take Shelter. I’d forgotten about the beach sequence, and while I guess I can see why it wouldn’t sit well, I think letting it ruin the whole movie for you is putting too much stock in it.

    I don’t take the ending literally at all. It’s as ambiguous as the rest of the film though it seems to imply that the father’s crippling fear has been transferred to the wife and, honestly, we’ve already seen she has a LOT to be afraid of. The “coming storm” is really just symbolic of that.

    The thing is, this IS a dangerous scary world, especially I imagine when you have kids, but the movie is about how you deal with your fear. Shannon’s character lacks the emotional equipment, being a typical “guy” of a certain age and era, his inability to communicate his feelings are very problematic for his family and for his life. That’s really what this is about for me, more so than whether there’s really a storm or if he’s just crazy etc.

  14. Craig– what you’re talking about would work, except for the fact that you can’t pass schizophrenia onto your spouse. Yes, you can aggrivate their lives, their psychological well being, but that’s a far cry from actually getting them to the point that they can see and hear the delusions that result from mental illness.

    Now, you argue that in that vein, the ending shouldn’t be read literally. And I can see that. My problem is that the moment just before the wife sees the storm, the daughter does– and that’s a case where you could read the ending a little closer to something literal. Schizophrenia and other mental illnesses absolutely can be passed on biologically, and as such it would make a certain, poetic kind of sense for Shannon and the daughter to see the same hallucination, even if it doesn’t make much medical sense (the girl’s way too young to be manifesting symptoms).

    Simply put– if it was just the daughter, the ending would make a certain kind of literal sense. With the wife, however, it flounders, because the only way for it to make literal sense is to negate the rest of the movie. At best, it takes this wonderfully restrained drama about the heartbreaking reality of mental illness and turns it into a “Twilight Zone” episode. A good episode, maybe, but it didn’t need to condescend to that, especially so very late in the game.

    Part of the problem in your reading, I think, is that you’re looking at it as a study of masculinity, which it may well be. But it’s also, and I would say primarily, about the nature of schizophrenia, and in that sense it’s frankly one of the best depictions of it I’ve seen on screen, where usually you only get rather tastelessly gimmicky portrayals. This is where the difference rises. If you read it as a study of the male psyche, the ending can work, maybe. If you read it as a study of mental illness, however, the ending is just a cop-out.

  15. I never said he passed the schizophrenia on to his spouse. I’m talking about the fear. The danger is very real whether the storm is meant to be taken literally or not (I choose not).

    The wife is now freaked out because her husband has demonstrated that, issues of mental illness aside, he’s not well-equipped to handle the stresses of fatherhood. At the same time, there’s a knowing look they share that seems to imply that at least going forward they will work together.

    You’re getting too caught up over whether there’s a storm or there isn’t. I’m saying it doesn’t matter, but there probably isn’t The scene isn’t shown from the perspective of the daughter, so her seeming to see it doesn’t matter. You can take it as a dream that either of the parents is having – I vote for Chastain, but it works either way. They’re dreaming the oil-rain as they’re dreaming the daughter’s reaction.

    And yes, I read it as the study of a male psyche, a particular kind of psyche. The fact of his possible schizophrenia is a way to expose his other issues – namely his need to be a protector combined with a crippling inability to express his deepest scary feelings. The schitzophrenia on its own is about as meaningless as the storm ultimately.

  16. I’m not going to argue the ending but I did want to say that the ending doesn’t ruin the film for me. The final scene doesn’t work for me either. There’s still a helluva film there whether you like the ending or not. I think you can read the film as a depiction of schizophrenia and a study of male anxiety or the other way around, but regardless both are going being portrayed effectively, honestly, and lucidly. And I really respect Nichols for doing that.

  17. Craig and Alison: The silly being-off-the-market joke aside, I’m very lucky and we had a lovely wedding. Thank you.

  18. Congratulations Joel. Best Wishes!

  19. “The wife is now freaked out because her husband has demonstrated that, issues of mental illness aside, he’s not well-equipped to handle the stresses of fatherhood. ”

    Jeez, I hope you’re not referring to Joel.

    Congratulations on the wedding Joel! The marketplace is all the poorer for having such a smart , funny, and thoughtful man permanently off the consumer shelves.

  20. Parenthood, even after one year, still stymies movie watching for us but we’ve enjoyed a few quality television shows recently.

    The final episode of The Hour provides a thrilling climax. Even though what transpires and the associated revelations are not particularly surprising the finale is so well executed that you can’t help but become excited by it.

    Breaking Bad’s final four episodes of season 4 had everything. Great writing and acting, memorable directorial flourishes, and a tremendous showdown between two protagonists. I’ve always admired Giancarlo Esposito as an actor. His BB character Gus was a role he was born to play.

    Page Eight, the BBC television movie that has been shown at some film festivals, is all class. We’re talking an accomplished and cerebral writer in David Hare and a cast able to fully inhabit his work – Bill Nighy, Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz, Michael Gambon, and Judy Davis. Nighy plays a very different character from the trademark ones we associate with him and delivers a brilliantly understated performance. Hare’s work here would do justice to le Carre. Among other things it explores the ethical consequences of the politicization of intelligence services by politicians who no longer seek evenhanded and rigorous intelligence analysis but rather the promotion of their rigid world views and political agenda.

  21. I can vouch for the whole season of Breaking Bad. Some of the finest television I’ve seen. I’m constantly amazed how they writers seem to be deliberately writing themselves into an impossible corner, only to pull narrative rabbits out of their asses and resolving things logically and emotionally satisfyingly.

    Great stuff.

    I keep meaning to catch up to The Hour, but haven’t gotten around to it.

    Now that BB is on hiatus, I’ve been watching the current seasons of Walking Dead and Homeland. The former is problematic, but promising. I’m waiting for the dust to settle after the big inbetween season shakeup where Frank Darabont basically got thrown out on his ass.

    Homeland has also so far been imperfect, but compelling. I’m still waiting for a character or two to start demanding my attention, but it hasn’t quite happened yet.

  22. “The wife is now freaked out because her husband has demonstrated that, issues of mental illness aside, he’s not well-equipped to handle the stresses of fatherhood.”

    Jeez, I hope you’re not referring to Joel.

    All my elaborate charades have been torn asunder. Damn you, Jeff Nichols.

  23. “And yes, I read it as the study of a male psyche, a particular kind of psyche. The fact of his possible schizophrenia is a way to expose his other issues – namely his need to be a protector combined with a crippling inability to express his deepest scary feelings. The schitzophrenia on its own is about as meaningless as the storm ultimately.”

    I feel the same way about the “male psyche” argument. Schisophrenia is too serious a condition and frankly one that’s been either overlooked or ill-treated in media for me to even consider writing it off as “meaningless as the storm”, and Nichols’ portrayal of if up until the last moments is exactly the kind of sensitive, realistic one we need to see more of if we want to see more understanding. If I want to watch a movie about the “male psyche”, I’ll watch “Fight Club” (a fun flick, but in retrospect exactly the kind of film that uses mental illness as a gimmick in ways I find rather distasteful).

  24. Well Bob, I guess in this case it just sucks to be you. The movie you wanted wasn’t the movie you got. For me, it delivered in spades.

    Thanks for the utterly facile comparison to Fight Club though. Funny.

  25. Again, it’s about the way mental illness is trivialized, really. “Fight Club” does it on a mild scale by turning multiple personality disorder into a plot device (a rather good one, but still rather glib and superficial). “Take Shelter” does it on arguably a larger scale by giving us the back end of Chicken Little syndrome. A real shame, because the movie gets it right up until its last moments.

  26. So how can it trivialize schizophrenia if it gets all but the last minute of it right? Seriously? One minute of the whole movie?


  27. Because it makes his delusions a reality, which is of fundamental importance when you’re talking about a condition that is defined by a person’s fundamental discconect from reality. The ending trivializes schizophrenia because it forces the idea that he’s not crazy after all, and that his dreams and hallucinations are genuine premonitions of the future, something that the film never seriously entertains as a possibility up until then. It’s a cheap trick, and doesn’t gel even if you want to believe it’s not a “literal” sequence.

  28. The first rule of Take Shelter is: you do not talk to Bob about Take Shelter.

  29. “Sam, I’m bummed you didn’t buy into the excellence that was Martha Marcy Marlene. I don’t think the structure was a problem at all, rather one of the film’s highlights.”

    I wish I could agree with you, especially as your entire qualification is so well-reasoned and written. If I thought this uneven and frustrating mix of flashbacks and hallucinations had worked, I surely would have had a stronger reaction. There were unsatisfactory holes in the story that left me perplexed. For example, why did our main character refuse to mention what had happened to her? The film never offered any answers, and the ending was nothing more than an abrupt cessation of a static and alienating drama. Yeah, I see exactly what Durkin was trying to do, but he seems to have forgotten all about his audience. This was a splendid idea, I just don’t feel it worked, despite those admittedly riveting two leads.

    Conversely, I loved TAKE SHELTER and had no real issues with that one’s seemingly controversial ending.

  30. Well there are psychological underpinnings to her post-cult condition. On one hand, she was already a little on the edge before she entered the cult. It’s possible it pushed her over the edge. I increasingly wondered as the film went on, how much of her memories really happened and how much she was imagining.

    On the other hand, there may well have been a rational part left in her that realized the last two years of her life had been totally insane and she was embarrassed to admit to her sister, with whom she’d always obviously had a fractured relationship, that she’d fallen victim.

    It could also have been some kind of post traumatic stress disorder. The same things underpinning her wetting herself or crawling into bed with her sister while she was having sex. This is not a well woman.

    And frankly I think that’s the point. For whatever reason, she’s destabilized… whether she was already nuts or the cult drove here there, she’s struggling with reality. In a way, she’s a classic unreliable narrator. That uncertainty which turns you off is exactly what appeals to me about the film.

  31. She is not a well woman indeed, and as you acknowledge she is not a pleasant character. This may have mitigated against the obviously astute observations that are present here regardless of one buys into this. Perhaps the physical look of the film, blending real film stock with video (a hybrid look) may have been alienating, but that’s no valid reason to dismiss it. In view of your spirited indeed inspired arguments here and the excellent reaction from critics, where the numbers are most impressive, I am beginning to think that I am the problem here.

    At some point I’ll give this another go.

  32. Your response a second time might be the same. It’s a character study of a largely unlikable person which I usually have a hard time with. I’ve warmed up to this one thinking and talking about it afterward

  33. Wow, there is a lot of discussion about the psychological disorders presented in a couple of current movies this week. Sadly, I’ve seen neither. In my experience psychological disorders and criminal personality is almost always presented unrealistically in movies. Sometimes that really bugs me, sometimes it doesn’t. I think part of the problem is that there is a fictionalized version of mental health problems that writers genuinely believe in or are too lazy to research beyond. There is also the problem that real depictions of mental health problems are not necessarily the stuff of entertainments or more engaging artistic expression. I’ve seen no romance, enlightenment, or transcendence in the suffering of mental health disorders, they’re a shit deal for those afflicted with them.

  34. They are indeed a shit deal for both characters in Take Shelter and Martha Marcy May Marlene offering neither romance, transcendence nor enlightenment. If my memory serves however, Michael Shannon is never officially diagnosed with anything thing in Take Shelter and is in fact asymptomatic in some ways. His mother was institutionalized, but I don’t remember if her illness is specifically named as schizophrenia. At any rate, there is significant doubt all the way through exactly what is happening to Shannon.

    In the case of Martha, a case for mental illness is never made. I’m bringing that myself to try and explain much of her behavior. The story unfolds entirely through her POV and as I said above she’s not a reliable narrator.

    You should definitely seek both of these movies out Sartre. I don’t know to what extent you’d find them satisfying, but I think you’d at least find them interesting.

  35. I was already sold on Take Shelter as a film to catch. I really liked Shotgun Stories and Shannon within it. And the controversy expressed in this Watercooler debate only increases my interest. He is a tricky actor for me. I think he’s immensely talented and offers an engaging off-kilter presence that can be endearingly quirky or downright menacing. But often I find his depictions taking things a notch or so too far and I get thrown out of the performance by it being overly mannered and suggesting caricature.

  36. That was the great thing about Shotgun Stories is that Nichols kept him on a very short leash. You kept waiting for things to fly off the handle, but it never does.

    He has one truly unhinged moment in Take Shelter, and frankly it’s the weakest part of the film for me, but it does no harm to the rest of the picture. Mostly Nichols just keeps winding him up and winding him up until the tension becomes unbearable.

    It’s heartbreaking because he’s so clearly a loving and decent husband and father yet he has to face the fact that he himself might be the one thing he has to protect his family from.

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