Watching so many films in Cannes presents a kaleidoscope of perspective shifts, and contrasts the cultural differences between countries. While "The Beaver" crystallizes America in 2011, "Le Havre" is purely a snapshot of France.
Both films deal with a search for happiness. Both involve a youngish man and a married couple. Both explore pathways to meeting the right people, finding ways to know them better, and discovering love is the key to a serene and satisfying existence. It’s funny that both films come around to the same spot, essentially, from totally different directions.
"Le Havre," which is screening in the official competition, turns out to be one of the true delights of Cannes 2011, along with "The Artist" and, in its own way, "The Tree of Life." It’s a film that deals with a serious subject, illegal immigration, in a not-so-serious way. Like "The Artist," it’s one of those films that makes you smile continually, one that renews your faith, even if just for a few hours, in the goodness of human beings.
Finnish writer/director Aki Kaurismaki turns to the South of France to tell his story. A wife becomes gravely ill and is taken to the hospital. She can’t tell her husband the truth because, she says, he’s really just a big baby who can’t really handle the truth and can’t seem to manage without her, despite evidence to the contrary.
That’s the funny thing about this movie: people say things whether they mean them or not. For the entire movie, the wife is in the hospital. She believes she’s dying but tells her husband it’s nothing to worry about. Meanwhile, the husband happens upon a group of immigrants – specifically, a young boy who escaped a police raid. The man begins looking after the boy, feeds him, gives him shelter, teaches him how to shine shoes. Soon, his neighbors are also involved in the cause: the baker babysits and gives him free bread, the grocer hands over free cans of vegetables and beans. It becomes a village effort to care for this boy and to help him find his way to his mother in London.
What’s so enjoyable is that Kaurismaki has such a light touch with this heavy subject. "Le Havre" also shows is something I’ve come to discover of late: the fundamental kindness of the French people in this region. The French get a bad rap for being rude, in Paris anyway, but the majority of locals I’ve come across since I’ve been here have been helpful, funny, chatty, kind and warm, if you’ll excuse a sweeping generalization.
Like so many films here, "Le Havre" offers up an ending that is open to interpretation. Even if good deeds are done by men and women, there are some things beyond our individual capacity to fix; it takes something like a miracle to fix those. How you read the ending here will depend on whether or not you believe in miracles. We choose to see the best in life, as we choose to see the best in people.
"The Beaver," which is screening out of competition here, was not a commercial success in its American run. The film is about a toy executive who becomes so depressed he can't really speak to anyone unless he uses a hand puppet. It's the story of a family – Gibson, the wife he's divorcing (director Jodie Foster) and their two sons, one of whom mostly hates him – coming apart and trying to pull themselves back together again.
Family problems and dynamics haven't been a major part of the foreign films I’ve seen in Cannes. Happiness is pushed like a drug here in America, where the prescription usually involves buying something for the cure, but the pressure for self-fulfillment doesn't feel so obsessive overseas. In "Le Havre," for instance, personal happiness isn’t a necessity. It is a momentary result of having done something good for another person.
It its very American way of laying it all out completely and honestly, "The Beaver" hits some hard-core emotional notes. If it seems odd that it’s showing up here in Cannes after already opening in the States, perhaps it’s because Foster is determined to go to any lengths to get her movie seen on its own terms. If audiences can’t forgive, can they at least forget? If they can forget, maybe they can take a break from being jury and executioner and find a little compassion for these characters cast adrift yet undaunted, struggling with the roots of their depression, facing their fears to overcome avoidance, and ultimately realizing emotional vulnerability is an asset not an illness.
More of Sasha Stone's Cannes coverage can be found at Awards Daily.