“It Takes a Village…”: The Use of Childhood to Negotiate Questions of Migration and European Identity in Le Havre

Le Havre (Kaurismäki, 2011)
Anushka Robinson explores Aki Kaurismäki's take on migration, Fortress Europe, northern France, and community ties through theories of childhood and affiliation.
[Ed. note: this post is part of our Student Voices section. In this issue all posts in the section come from papers given at the 2019 SCMS-U Conference. For more background on these posts and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

Anti-immigration sentiments are on the rise. People looking for jobs, safety, and shelter are met with open hostility in the West. In Europe many reject migrants as aliens. ‘Fortress Europe’ was a World War II concept about the division between the Axis and the Ally countries, but now it describes how European governments and citizens reject migrants outright and work to keep migrants out of the continent. Aki Kaurismäki’s migrant film, Le Havre (2011) shows a way for migrants to be adopted into European communities. Laura Rascaroli identifies in her article “Becoming-minor in a Sustainable Europe: The Contemporary European Art Film and Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre” a minority and majority community in the town of Le Havre whose central philosophies are at odds. Marcel Marx represents the minority community: bohemian, working class, and kind. The government’s and the rest of the town’s modern outlook excludes migrants, criminalises them, and seeks to violently remove them. Marcel is the protagonist of the film and the leader of the minority community, but the main character of the film is the child Idrissa. I identify Kaurismäki’s use of a child to rally the minority community’s support as a strategy of political rhetoric that Lee Edelman identifies and breaks down in his book No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. There are no other children featured in the film which increases the focus on Idrissa. The moral argument of the film is based on how the different communities treat Idrissa, the Child. The majority community rejects Idrissa while the minority community celebrates the diversity that Idrissa brings and adopts him. Edelman’s theory is useful in analysing Idrissa’s adoption into Marcel’s community because of how Marcel’s community differs from the larger community. Marcel’s community is ignored and othered in the film; they appear to inhabit a radically different physical and temporal space and follow an anti-authoritarian philosophy.  Idrissa’s adoption is a rebellion against a normative oppressive state; the adoption allows for the perpetuation of Marcel’s community’s morals and ideals. Kaurismäki uses childhood and adoption in Le Havre to create a path to the future for communities that support migrants and to show how communities that do not support migrants will die off.

The opening of the film hints at the existence of Fortress Europe. Marcel and his friends are visually distinct from Fortress Europe; they are brighter, softer, and often appear from the opposite side of the frame.

Marcel shining the shoes of a businessman

There are hints about the presence of Fortress Europe woven throughout the film. The opening scenes are shots of the city; the geography of the city is often bleak and blocky concrete, the structures are sterile and unwelcoming.

The people are equally as defensive and hostile to those they consider outsiders. Marcel attempts to ply his trade as a shoe shiner in front of a shoe store, and he is chased off protesting he and the shoe store are “business partners.” Kaurismäki argues that even when Fortress Europe has the potential to ally with outsiders, they reject them outright for not being a part of Fortress Europe. Fortress Europe is not shown as inherently violent in the film, but it uses violence as a way to prevent people from entering. Fortress Europe is paranoid, even against its own citizens. Neighbours spy on each other, and in public people are constantly suspicious of those around them as the hunt for migrants goes on. Fortress Europe cannot unite its citizens, instead they turn against each other to protect their own selves.

Marcel walking through the town

The paranoia and defensiveness of Fortress Europe form the character of the majority community in the film. The costumes of the people match the buildings, reflecting that Fortress Europe has infected the minds of the people as well as the structure of society. Kaurismäki mocks Fortress Europe in front of the audience. The narrative portrays the magnitude of Fortress Europe’s response as ridiculous especially when confronting the young child Idrissa.

Kaurismäki constructs Fortress Europe before the audience’s eyes to show how deeply  the militarisation of society goes. Kaurismäki frequently points out the strangeness and brutality of the system. The majority of Le Havre is so hostile to outsiders they ostracise members of Marcel’s community for being slightly different than the norm. Fortress Europe becomes overtly apparent in the scene where the police open the crate the migrants are hiding in.  The heavily militarised police force presents a comical contrast to the peaceful migrants waiting inside the shipping crate.

The film shows that Europe does not solely have to be defensive as paramedics are the first to enter the crate. The defensive mechanism remains as a blockade to the migrants entering Europe; Kaurismäki indicts Fortress Europe facing off the migrants as an exaggerated response. Inspector Monet, a police detective present, questions why the police need to be so heavily armed when dealing with non-threatening migrants; the response is that it is the instructions of the Ministry. Inspector Monet’s questioning places the state and the law in opposition; the state criminalises the migrants while the law, through Inspector Monet, recognises there is nothing inherently wrong in seeking safe harbour in a new country.

The police prepare to confront the migrants

The dominant European majority community is contrasted in the film to Marcel Marx’s minority community. The dominant European identity excludes Marcel and his community; however, exclusion isn’t what creates the minority community. According to Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, the minority is defined through its opposition to the majority.1Laura Rascaroli, “Becoming-minor in a Sustainable Europe: The Contemporary European Art Film and Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre,” Screen 54, no. 3 (2013): 323–40.. The majority community represents capitalist interests which contrasts with the communal philosophy of the minority community. The majority community rejects and abuses European citizens who don’t follow the dominant philosophy. Kaurismäki playfully points this out when the shoe seller forces Marcel to leave the compound even though “[they] are business partners” in Marcel’s words. The contrast between the two communities is brought up again more seriously later in the film when the film shows new footage of pro-migrant protestors facing off against the police. The minority community is the complete opposite of the majority community. The first way Kaurismäki distinguishes between the communities is through the use of colour. The minority community is signified by bright, usually primary, colours such as red, yellow and blue, while the majority community wears drab colours such as grey, white and black. Primary colours also used as part of the lighting and background colours of scenes featuring the minority community. Kaurismäki’s use of colour subtly tells the audience who is friend and who is foe, with particular reference to Marcel and Idrissa. The use of primary colours identifies the minority community with Idrissa because they are soft and childlike, they show the ability to engage Idrissa from his perspective instead of forcing him out for being visually different. The minority community that helps Idrissa is made up of people who represent many different ethnicities, while the majority community that hunts him is exclusively white Western European. The use of primary colours and the diverse makeup of the community visually ally the minority community in the film with Idrissa. Kaurismäki makes it easier for the assimilation of his migrant character by choosing to have Idrissa be a young boy. Instead of through birth, the more natural way of becoming a member of a national identity, Idrissa is adopted into an extended family. Kaurismäki’s contrast between the minority and majority communities shows how the community can successfully reinvent the definition of a member of their community.

Time is the other main way that Kaurismäk differentiates the minority community from the majority community. The members of the minority society often appear to come from a different time than the members of the majority community. The clothing and objects associated with the minority community seem to come from the previous century, even though the story is set in modern times. For example, Little Bob who performs at the charity concert for Idrissa is portrayed as a 70s rockstar, and Inspector Monet is clothed as a 40s noir detective rather than a member of the 21st century French police force.2Ibid, 335.

Inspector Monet in a bar run by one of Marcel’s friends

Modern clothing and modern technology, such as guns and cell phones, is shown in relation to the majority community. Kaurismäki represents the members of the minority community as citizens of an era that is both past and present in the film. Kaurismäki demonstrates to the audience that the ideals the minority community holds are part of Europe’s past but are still able to be enacted in the present day. The contrast between the minority and majority society critiques how modern ideals have eroded the majority community’s ability to empathise with Idrissa.  The minority community’s association with old and out of date objects is another way that Kaurismäki others their identity in the film; the anachronistic nature of the minority community of the film and their allyship with childhood relates their situation to Lee Edelman’s definition of queer community in No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. The minority community is unable to move forward into the future with the rest of the community; their relationship with Idrissa allows them to grow and evolve in a way the majority community does not because they reject Idrissa.

Kaurismäki plays with the audience’s perception of time using editing. Kaurismäki uses many quick jump cuts in the film that are sometimes jarring to the audience in the beginning. Scenes are often moved from problem, to action, to resolution without showing any intermediary action. One of the more significant examples is towards the end of the film, when Marcel and Monet reconcile their differences after Idrissa is safely away to England. Marcel admits to Monet he misjudged him before suddenly they are both walking for a drink. The audience is not allowed to see the full reconciliation. Kaurismäki cements Monet as a member of the minority community by using a quick cut as well as further reinforcing the idea that time is different for members of the minority community. The film’s editing communicates the point of view of the minority community to the audience. The minority community’s experience of time reflects a straightforward attitude to interpersonal relationships. The quick editing reveals the importance of actions; Marcel and his friends perform actions for the betterment of themselves and their community so they are able to quickly see the rewards of their actions. The majority community works to keep others out so scenes focusing on the majority community have longer takes as they suffer complications as a result of their ill intent. The quick cuts reinforce the connection between different communities who are united under one purpose in the film. Kaurismäki cements the bond between Marcel’s community and Idrissa’s migrant community with a quick cut after the initial meeting between Marcel and the migrants at the camp in Dunkirk. The migrants initially appear mistrustful and hostile, but with one cut they are eating and laughing together.

Marcel and the migrants eating together

Marcel’s meeting with the migrants is part of a larger search for Idrissa’s grandfather, a long journey Kaurismäki shortens exponentially with the use of quick cuts. Marcel travels from Le Havre to Dunkirk and back again, but Kaurismäki cuts the sequence so the journey appears to happen instantaneously as a reward for Marcel’s altruism. The fast editing style occurs around the members of the migrant community and the members of Marcel’s community; the audience recognises a connection between the two communities before the film introduces them to each other on screen. Displacement from a home country and displacement from society unite Marcel’s community and the migrant community as their displacement affects how they experience the world around them.

Time is also played within the narrative of the film. The entirety of the film is supposed to take place over a few weeks. Within that time Idrissa successfully leaves Le Havre for England and Arletty recovers from her cancer. Earlier in the film, Idrissa and the other migrants are supposed to have been in the storage container for a few weeks, but look as if they have only been in there for a short while. Though in the beginning of the film time seems to have slowed down for members of the minority community, by the end of the film time appears to have accelerated for them through their interaction with Idrissa. Marcel’s community appears to inhabit a world from a few decades before the contemporary period. The time period the minority community inhabits does not change but their temporal location in their lives changes. Marcel is somewhat immature in his relationship with Arletty in the beginning of the film. Marcel’s involvement with Idrissa reveals a more mature and self-sufficient personality. Marcel’s maturation allows him to resume his life with Arletty, and their temporality moves beyond the view of the film as the camera moves away from them as they return to their married life at home. Similarly, Idrissa at the end looks back at Le Havre but the audience cannot see his view of London. Idrissa’s future is illegible because it is filled with boundless potential.

Kaurismäki constructs time as a physical object in the film. Rascaroli argues that the town of Le Havre acts as a microcosm of Western Europe in the film, balanced between its history and its present.3Ibid, 336. Time becomes not only an idea but a physical object. The characters’ interaction with the city allows them to move through time, and time becomes visible through the city. The buildings of the minority community (small houses, grocery stores, bakeries) are contrasted with the space which the majority community controls (large shops, train stations, government buildings). The minority community consists of greengrocers, bakeries, and smaller more humble homes; while the majority community’s buildings are large, blocky, grey structures the contain railways, huge stores and other modern accoutrements. The audience moves backwards and forwards in time as the film takes them through these spaces. Kaurismäki’s use of time in the film represents the welcoming community he seeks for Europe to become as part of Europe’s past, but able to become part of Europe’s present. Kaurismäki plays with the construction of time through formal elements in the film in order to create his utopian vision through Idrissa’s adoption.

Kaurismäki’s choice of portraying Idrissa as a child affects how he is accepted into the community. Idrissa becomes the child of the community and the members of the community become his family. Lee Edelman describes the construct of the Child as one that unites the community because their “innocence solicits [the community’s] defense.”4Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), 2. The Child also acts as a way of connecting members of the community to the future, which Edelman describes as reproductive futurism. Members of the community, especially queer people, are left outside of community if they cannot have children and are thus unable to have a future. Marcel and his wife Arletty are a childless couple and are excluded from the majority community in the film. There are no children portrayed as members of the minority community in the film.5Reference is made to Chang’s baby daughter in the film and Yvette, the baker, who is Claire’s, the bar owner, grown daughter. Instead Idrissa becomes the Child of the community. The community members transform their characters in order to aid Idrissa in his goal. Marcel is portrayed as somewhat aimless in the film and get his direction from his wife. Idrissa enters Marcel’s life as Arletty becomes ill,6Arletty’s illness is first signified by her holding her belly, an early sign to the audience she will not be playing the role of the mother in the film. Marcel must become the caretaker instead of being taken care of. Marcel’s role as a father elevates him to a role of power and leadership in the community, as well as ensuring Idrissa’s protection. The community offers monetary support and even hide Idrissa when Marcel cannot. Idrissa has no more familial ties to his home country of Gabon. His father has died, his grandfather was caught by the border police and his mother is waiting in London. Without his adoption into Le Havre’s minority community Idrissa would be unprotected. His adoption into Le Havre’s minority community protects him from the danger he would have otherwise faced at the hands of the police and allow him to resume the role of the Child. Kaurismaki signals Idrissa’s role as the Child by his acknowledgement by a member of the majority community. Inspector Monet prevents Idrissa from being shot at when he runs away, asking the officer who took aim “What are you doing? He’s a child.” The other migrants are either too old or too young to perform the role of the Child so they are rejected and sent to detention centres,7There are other children who are found in the shipping crate with Idrissa, however they are mostly too young to play a role in the film.and only Idrissa is able to stay. Edelman endorses rejecting reproductive futurity; Idrissa’s adoption represents a subversion of reproductive methods of being included into a community. The community rejects the legal framework that defines Idrissa as an outsider and brings him into their community.

I also relate actions of Marcel and his compatriots to Javier Muñoz’s ideas on queer utopia. Munoz describes queerness as “the rejection of a here and now and an insistence on potentiality or concrete possibility for another world.”8José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 1..The minority community rejects the xenophobic views of the majority community in order to help Idrissa to go to another country and a new life. Muñoz also argues that queerness is visible only on the horizon, in response to Edelman’s assertions on reproductive futurity. It is significant therefore that in the last image the audience sees of Idrissa he turns from looking at Le Havre to looking towards England and his future. Idrissa’s future is not legible to the audience but it’s illegibility fills it with limitless possibility.

Idrisssa looking towards his future

Kaurismäki’s choice of having Idrissa be a child allow him to create a utopian vision of a European society that welcomes and aids migrants instead of criminalising them, a radically different vision from the mainstream of Fortress Europe.

Aki Kaurismäki’s migrant film Le Havreshows a way for migrants to be adopted into European community. The majority and minority community in the film are defined by their interaction with the young migrant boy, Idrissa. Idrissa as the Child creates a future for the community that aids him while condemning the community that rejects him to become a relic of the past. Le Havreconstructs a utopian vision of the future where European citizens actively aid migrants into joining their community, by showing how this vision exists in the present.


1 Laura Rascaroli, “Becoming-minor in a Sustainable Europe: The Contemporary European Art Film and Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre,” Screen 54, no. 3 (2013): 323–40.
2 Ibid, 335.
3 Ibid, 336.
4 Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), 2.
5 Reference is made to Chang’s baby daughter in the film and Yvette, the baker, who is Claire’s, the bar owner, grown daughter.
6 Arletty’s illness is first signified by her holding her belly, an early sign to the audience she will not be playing the role of the mother in the film.
7 There are other children who are found in the shipping crate with Idrissa, however they are mostly too young to play a role in the film.
8 José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 1.
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