He says he hates his own work, didn’t want to be a director and isn’t political – except when he is… Alistair Harkness tries to get to grips with Aki Kaurismäki
IINTERVIEWING Aki Kaurismäki, the Finnish auteur responsible for deadpan arthouse favourites Leningrad Cowboys Go America and the Oscar-nominated The Man Without a Past, is a little like talking to a character from one of his films. Conversation is stilted, questions are met with silence and it’s never clear how seriously anything is supposed to be taken.
This might have something to do with the fact that I’m chatting to Kaurismäki about his new film Le Havre – a poker-faced comedy-drama about an ageing shoeshine who befriends an illegal immigrant boy hiding out in the titular French port. And it doesn’t help that we’re talking over an inexcusably bad phone line (he’s only in London). But I think it might also have something to do with Kaurismäki’s general despondency.
Before I can say anything about Le Havre, for instance, he provides his own assessment: “It’s another piece of shit, as always.”
A sampling of press clippings reveals this is one of his standard self-deprecating refrains. Usually it’s accompanied by protestations to the contrary from the interviewer, but I’m prepared to take him at his word. He can’t genuinely believe he’s made a piece of shit, can he?
“Of course I can, because my references are higher.”
So, he really just thinks it’s a piece of shit in comparison to his inspirations?
“My inspirations are all art,” he replies, letting out a long declamatory sigh. I wait for him to expand on this, but I’m met with silence. A few minutes in and already it’s like wading through quicksand.
I proceed by asking him about his characters. His films tend to focus on those living on the margins of society. Where previous works have been political without being issue-driven, Le Havre seems more didactic in the way it serves up pointed critiques of government policy towards immigration. Does he think it’s more directly political?
“It’s a complicated question because I am political in private…” He trails off. “Eh, what did you ask?”
I rephrase the question another couple of times. “I’ve never been a political director,” he says, finally. “When people go to the cinema, they don’t want a political lesson and, so far, I hide it in the stories very deep because if I’m a worker and going to the cinema after working eight or ten hours a day, I don’t want to see any politics in the film… Of course, all my films have politics, because I don’t see any reason to make a film if you don’t have anything to say. In my case I have something to say. But it’s obviously not something political.”
Perplexed, I ask him, then, if Le Havre started out more simply as a story of an immigrant African boy adrift in a foreign port, rather than, say, an attempt to address immigration. Contrary to the previous answer, though, he says no.
“I always saw news of people who have died trying to get to Europe and this news continued to come and somehow this started to be a story. This tale is a fairytale, but it started to be a political question to me. I couldn’t stand the situation without doing something, and for me, that means a film.” A film he thinks is a piece of shit, I remind myself.
I come at it from another angle. Did he make the lead character, Marcel, a shoeshine for any symbolic reason? Typically, he says no. After some cajoling, however, he says he has a story he can tell me about this.
“I saw a shoe-shiner in the town in Portugal where I live and he had no customers, so I took my shoes for a shine. At the same time I was thinking, ‘Who the hell is the main character?’ And then I looked down and saw the shoe-shiner shining my shoe and I said to myself, ‘OK.’”
Now it’s my turn for stony-faced silence. Nevertheless, I persevere. I bring up the fact that Marcel is played by the actor André Wilms who, 20 years earlier, played a struggling artist called Marcel in Kaurismäki’s only other French language film, The Bohemian Life. Is Le Havre a continuation of that film?
“It’s a joke, more or less,” he says, “but it doesn’t mean anything.”
Sheesh – it’s like pulling teeth. I ask him (twice) about his love of early rock’n’roll and its prominence in his films. He says he uses it so that “I don’t have to write dialogue”. Seeking more detail, I wonder why he features a concert by an ageing French rocker called Little Bob in Le Havre. Is Little Bob a well-known French star?
“He was just there. And I’m not blind.”
“He’s the Elvis of France,” he says, eventually.
Isn’t that Johnny Hallyday? I ask. Silence.
I change tack. Having made a silent film (Juha) back in 1999, what does he make of the revival of interest in the format since The Artist?
“Yeah, I never understood this silent stuff,” he says. “I think people talk too much anyway.” Evidently.
Since Kaurismäki makes films that he not only thinks are shit but apparently isn’t particularly interested in discussing, I wonder why he got started in film-making in the first place.
“Got started with what?”
Why did he want to become a director?
“I never wanted to become a director. I wanted to be a writer. They didn’t trust me to be a writer, so I became a director. I was not talented enough to be a writer.”
It seems too complicated to take issue with such specious I-accidentally-became-a-director nonsense, so I ask if he means he wanted to be a novelist. “Yeah,” he says.
I look at my watch. I have another few minutes, but decide life’s too short and thank him for his time. He apologises again for the bad line. I tell him not to worry, that these things happen. I still feel like I’m in one of his films, though, and we all know how he feels about those…
• Le Havre is the Glasgow Film Festival Closing Night Gala 26 February and goes on general release on 6 April.