By Eric Kohn | Indiewire May 18, 2011 at 2:45AM
With its bouncy soundtrack, deadpan humor and good-natured disposition, Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki's "Le Havre" is an endearing affair. Combining his clownish storytelling with a life-affirming plot, Kaurismaki churns a fundamental scenario through his own unique narrative tendencies, yielding a product both heartwarming and irreverent, two qualities that should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with his distinctive touch. Beyond that, it also introduces an element of political commentary to the director's work that deepens its impact.
Previous Kaurismaki collaborator Andre Wilms plays Marcel Marx, a middle-aged married man settled into his basic routine as a shoe shiner in the quaint seaside community that gives the movie its title. His cozy routine includes the time he spends at home alongside his supportive wife Arletty (Kati Outinen). But when Arletty winds up in the hospital with a tumor, Marcel loses his handle on a stable existence and undergoes a daring challenge: After randomly coming across an underage refugee from Africa (Bondin Miguel) evading the police, Marcel decides to take the boy under his wing and help him find a way back to his family.
Kaurismaki blends classic suspense tropes with the cinematic equivalent of a smirk. His neighborhood friends eventually assist Marcel in keeping the cops at bay, standing tall against the scrutiny of their trenchant inspector Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) with an elaborate plan that throws him off track. The ongoing levity of these proceedings testify to Kaurismaki's personal touch.
Without turning to farce, he injects various scenes with convivial slapstick and offbeat dialogue. In one scene, Monet drops by the bar to question a local woman. "I heard about your husband," he says, referencing his recent death. "I'm sorry." She fires back, "Why? He was a fatalist." Such understated wit drifts throughout "Le Havre." When the refugee initially evades authorities, the chase sequence might as well include air quotes around the edges of the frame.
Kaurismaki's meta approach enables him to play around with genre while constantly reminding viewers of his greater thematic aims. "Le Havre" is about the desire to make a small difference and raising the stakes in order to succeed. It's deeply concerned with the capacity for activism to improve one's life: An appealing protagonist whose befuddled expression culls from Jacques Tati, Marcel makes an ideal quirky hero to fit Kaurismaki's handmade universe.
Like the amnesiac at the core of his previously acclaimed comedy "The Man Without a Past," Marcel's pathos come from his status as a character with nothing to lose until he discovers a reason to care about the world again. Pitting that grandiose takeaway with the director's intentionally over-the-top stylistic dalliances, "Le Havre" maintains a fresh balance that never falters.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Kaurismaki's not a big name in the U.S., although "The Man Without a Past" was well-received because art house audiences responded kindly to its quirkiness. "Le Havre" could find similar success in the hands of a distributor willing to put a lot of effort into getting it noticed.
criticWIRE grade: A-