Tuesday, October 04, 2011

The 49th New York Film Festival: Le Havre & Twenty Cigarettes

Adorned by metronomically regular swatches and vast fields of blues and cyans, reds and yellows, Aki Kaurismäki's Le Havre (2011) proceeds not only along a comfortable narrative trajectory of humanistic resistance and proletariat solidarity in the face of aggressive immigration-law enforcement, but also according to a rigorously formalist path dedicated to the application and manipulation of the aforementioned color schema. With Kaurismäki establishing his palette from the opening Gaullist noir set-piece, albeit in the micro form of the poster art that hangs behind the film's abundantly charitable, if equally roguish lead, Marcel Marx (André Wilms; pictured left), Le Havre progresses fugue-like with one or more of the primary hues consistently serving as the visual dominant in each of the successive set-ups. In a back-alley of the Normandy port city as the canary yellow credits roll, for example, a greengrocer's light blue facade opposes a deep crimson bakery (the location and color field patterning, not to mention the Euro-African subtext, all call to mind Jacques Demy's total art opus, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, 1964). According to the same visual logic, when Le Havre's fugitive child Idrissa (Blondin Miguel; pictured right) first appears in the back of a docked freight container, his dark sweater happens to feature red and blue patterning, even as he sports a long-sleeved yellow shirt beneath. And much later, when Kaurismäki opts for a pillow shot of the port itself, the mist rises from the water in an all-encompassing sapphire that the filmmaker and cinematographer Timo Salminen exclusively cut with a dusting of glowing golden lights - and a single illuminated dapple of red near the left edge of the frame.

Kaurismäki thus invites his spectator to read his work in primarily visual terms, attending first to the color continuities in his mise-en-scène, and then, once his schema is established with overwhelming regularity, to those moments of variation where the absence of even one absent hue provides reason for notice. One such instance occurs with Mrs. Marx, Arletty's (Kati Outinen) hospitalization. Here, Kaurismäki initially withholds yellow from his visual field - with Macel's single rose providing the composition's red splash; it is only with the latter's delivery of Arletty's yellow dress that the film's palette is brought to its completion, which as it happens occurs in conjunction with a major narrative revelation. In fact, though Kaurismäki's strategies display a familial relation to Pedro Almodóvar's mannerism, Le Havre does alternately utilize its palette with an eye to the film's narrative subject: even more than the work's primary tones, Kaurismäki's marked introduction of black-and-white to dress his law enforcement officials procures a distinctive metaphorical value, as it suggests a strict, insufficiently flexible and compassionate legal morality. Consequently, the film's more vibrant palette retrospectively secures its own, inverted signification, as a poetic emblem of the bohemian value system that defines the Finnish maestro's latest. Le Havre indeed represents Kaurismäki working at the peak of his filmmaking powers.

James Benning's Twenty Cigarettes (2011) progresses according to the same theme-and-variation visual logic as Kaurismäki's latest, albeit without its narrative armature. Rather, the Structuralist filmmaker's latest presents another in a series of minimalist, one-take countdowns depicting an eponymous subject: here, the duration required by twenty on-screen smokers to complete a single cigarette. Benning's libertarian-spirited work finds its interest in the differences that the act itself emits - that is, in how the cigarette is held, the manner in which the smoke is exhaled and so on - as well as in the faces themselves, the intractable canvases that have come to replace the filmmaker's landscapes. Benning presents each of his multi-ethnic 'performers' before visually congruent, unfortunately on-the-nose backgrounds that combine with his human figures to produce totalizing spatial fields. If Twenty Cigarettes thus suggests the possibility of an important new direction for Benning, that is in his movement from landscape to face, the filmmaker's HD latest is in every other sense a minor achievement, the product of spare moments plotted and captured during Benning's itinerant globe-trotting. Twenty Cigarettes is a smoke-break in Benning's rich body of work.

Janus Films will begin its limited release of Le Havre on October 21, 2011, while The New York Film Festival will screen Twenty Cigarettes once as part of its "Views from the Avant-Garde" series, Sunday, October 9 at 9:00 PM.


Anonymous said...

I'm so glad you admired Le Havre! I noted the use of teal myself, but by then it was too late to take full note of its usage/meaning. Admittedly, the use of yellow and red in a similar vein didn't occur to me. Dying to rewatch the film. I believe it's his finest.

Greatly appreciating the meticulous NYFF updates from you both. I regret skipping A Separation! I'm afraid its immense popularity had turned me off at festival time.

Michael J. Anderson said...

Thanks, Trip; it's been Tativille's pleasure to cover this year's fest. "Le Havre" is up there for me likewise with "Ariel," "The Match Factory Girl," and "Take Care of Your Scarf, Tatjana!"

Anonymous said...

Aww, Tatjana. Actually, those are the exact three I cherish, myself.

Peter said...

Michael, I liked "Le Havre". Apropos the director's use of his color palette, it is nicely highlighted in the aptly named Inspector Monet. Monet of course was famous for his use of changing light and perspective, further equating flexibility with compassion.
My favorite Kaurismäki films are probably "Ariel", "La vie de bohème" and "The Man Without a Past".