Le Havre (Director: Aki Kaurismäki): Working on recurrent themes, in his usual style and with many actors who have appeared in previous films, Kaurismäki could be accused of making the same film over and over again. But to be fair, each iteration is just so lovely to watch that it’s easy to forgive him.
In the latest in his series of deadpan melodramas, André Wilms plays the perfectly-named Marcel Marx, a shoeshine man eking out a modest existence with his loving wife (the always wonderfully droll Kati Outinen) in the port city of Le Havre in Normandy. I say perfectly-named because Marcel is a portrait in gentle, almost silent, compassion with a bit of a political edge. It’s also an apt description of the film.
Le Havre is one of France’s busiest ports and a major transit point for cargo traveling to Great Britain. It’s not surprising that it’s also a hub for illegal migrants trying to find a better life there. When a container is found to contain a human cargo of Africans trying to make it to England, Marcel’s settled life is turned upside down. Kaurismäki’s compassion and humanism is never more evident than in a sequence where the music drops away and he lingers on the face of each person inside the opened container. A young boy, Idrissa, evades the police roundup and is soon discovered by Marcel, who takes pity on him, bringing him food and eventually taking him into his own home. This is all the more surprising because his wife Arletty has taken ill and is confined to hospital. Even as he worries about her, he rallies the ragtag community that seems to exist in all Kaurismäki films to help the boy find his way to relatives in London. Similar to Philippe Lioret’s excellent Welcome (review), the film’s politics are strictly personal, but with the sense that the protagonist’s growing awareness of the issue may change him for good.
It’s a serious story, but told with his typical light touch. Sublime lighting and a wonderful sense of composition elevate the visuals to the point where it couldn’t be described as gritty or even realistic, but it finds the beauty in each face and in the slightly shabby homes and storefronts of Marcel’s neighbours. There is also a rather unlikely benefit concert performance by an elderly rockabilly legend, whose presence in the film is completely unnecessary but serves as another indication of Kaurismäki’s big hearted loyalty to his friends.
In the end, it’s not surprising that a little bit of magic seems to bring the story to a happy conclusion. One critic I know has called Le Havre a masterpiece, but it’s my firm belief that Aki Kaurismäki doesn’t set out to create masterpieces, and I don’t think he’d be comfortable with that term. Instead, he continues to paint small and lovely portraits of overlooked people. Whether he really believes in the goodness of people or is just challenging us to live up to the ideals of characters like Marcel makes little difference to me. It’s just a genuine pleasure to be able to enjoy the work of one of world’s great humanist filmmakers.