What sort of film is Le Havre? Le Havre is the sort of film where the dog gets its name listed in the opening credits amongst the rest of the cast. That it is to say; it is sweet, sentimental, witty and oh-so-very nice.
The second French film directed by Finnish master Aki Kaurismäki – a periodically prolific filmmaker who has never become well known outside of cinephile circles – Le Havre sees him bring his minimalist, humanist storytelling to the famous Normandy port city.
Kaurismäki regular André Wilms plays Marcel Marx, a poor but contented older man, making a living as a shoeshiner. He has abandoned his bohemian past in order to look after his loving wife Arletty, who Marcel is all too aware is too good for him. When she takes ill and is hospitalised, Marcel finds the loneliness difficult to deal with.
But a mutual saviour comes in the form of Idrissa, a young illegal immigrant from Africa, desperate to get to his mother in London. He needs a place to hide from the police, including determined but honest cop Monet, while Marcel needs company and someone to provide for. And so Marcel goes about trying to help smuggle Idrissa across the English Channel, with the help of the assorted eccentrics he calls friends.
Wilms gives a heartfelt performance as Marcel, portraying a man who will keep going at whatever pace is necessary until the job gets done. His scenes with Kati Outinen, who portrays his wife Arletty, are sweet but tinged with sorrow for a life they never got to live. Paired with young actor Blondin Miguel, he plays the perfect foster father, teaching Idrissa the tricks of his trade, while passing on pearls of sentiment-free wisdom.
Matched with the film’s sweetness is its wit. Simple and to the point, Kaurismäki does not linger on a comic aside and lets the humour flow naturally. One scene, in which Marcel blags his way into a refugee camp, features some of the most finely honed comedy you will come across this year.
Kaurismäki frames his scenes with his traditional steady shots, composing every image without clutter. As opposed to the foggy black and white of the other great Le Havre-set film, Marcel Carné’s 1938 proto-noir Le Quai des Brumes (Port of Shadows), Kaurismäki lights every daytime scene with an airy grey, as if the sun is perpetually covered by the lightest but most insistent of clouds. It fills the city with a strange beauty that contrasts its old brown/grey streets with the metallic rusty reds and blues of dockside shipping containers.
Fans of Kaurismäki will recognise Le Havre as one of his best, and most typical, films, while newcomers should be able to enjoy its simple drama and inherent sweetness. They may however be turned off by a faint hint of magical realism that piques near the film’s end, and question why Kaurismäki chose to include a lengthy rock concert sequence – fans will know that’s just his thing that he does.
Le Havre is a light-hearted gem of a film that cares deeply for its characters; from its heroes, to its villain, to the dog.
(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)