The issue of illegal immigration certainly isn’t a new one to the film world, but rarely has it been captured with as much humanity, heart and humor as in Aki Kaurismaki’s “Le Havre.” A political film that eschews politicking, a comedy with a serious point, and imbued with a deep, emotional core, the latest from the Finnish director received hearty applause from the critics at Cannes and now matches “The Artist” for the biggest, most rousing crowd-pleaser of the festival.
The film centers on Marcel Marx (Andre Wilms), a former Parisian bohemian — whose success was mostly artistic he says — who has since retired to the northern coastal town of Le Havre. He makes a modest living shining shoes, has a small community of friends on the street on which he lives, and is married to the sweet Arletty (Kaurismaki regular Kati Outinen). Life revolves around his daily rounds, a quick drink or two at the bar and dinner with his wife who manages the household and keeps Marcel in line. But outside their quiet existence, on the docks of the city, a shipping cargo container has been found with a group of African refugees hiding inside who were hoping to make it to England. They are detained but not before one of them slips away, the young Idrissa (Blondin Miguel).
Stopping to eat lunch one day, Marcel spots the boy hiding waist deep in the water just off the shore. He’s about to offer him food when the local beat cop Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) begins sniffing around. Marcel gets Monet to leave but in the moment seems to decide to help the young kid as best he can. Fate deals a cruel hand, as Arletty becomes gravely ill and is admitted to the hospital. As his wife and friends tell each other, Marcel would be lost without her, but the prognosis of her illness is hidden from him for now, and he uses the opportunity to ferret away Idrissa in his home until he can figure out what to do.
“…I wanted to deal with this matter in this anyhow unrealistic film,” Kaurismaki said in a director’s statement about the film, and he succeeds wonderfully. What unfolds in the perfect paced and pitched 93 minute film is nothing short of a pure delight. Tasked by his commanding officers to find the boy, Monet — in his black trench coat and black hat, looking like he stepped out of a film noir — stalks the streets, but battles with his own feelings on what the fate of the boy should be. Meanwhile, Marcel goes on yes, an “unrealistic” journey to find out how he can reunite the boy with this family leading to a blisteringly funny encounter with immigration officials. He’s also helped by his friends who provide food and shelter for Idrissa as the net slowly closes in.
But this is not a thriller nor a picture with a strident message. As always, Kaurismaki’s tone is deadpan cool, his approach mixing the absurd with the real. The faces that populate the frame are once again drawn from a well of Fellini-esque figures whose battered visages feel authentic. The sets are spartan, seemingly furnished only with exactly the props that are needed for any scene, with nothing superfluous, but at the same time, they feel as if they’ve been lived in for years. But a massive tip of the hat must go to cinematographer Timo Salminen who favors minimal lighting and stark contrasts in his nighttime scenes and a naturalism during the daylight hours, creating a painterly, almost Edward Hopper-esque palette for this fable to unfold. And Kaurismaki’s love for American rock ‘n roll and roots music is again firmly on display, with some fine and fun musical selections.
The laughs from the film aren’t from punchlines per se, but attuned, unlikely moments like those involving the purchase of pineapple (a sequence which earned applause). And the romantic heart of the film is a big sweeping tribute to classic films but still is deeply touching and refreshingly new. Finally, the issue at the core is addressed not in any speeches or major scenes, but simply by a casual, briefly observed news report about the refugee camps established in various French towns followed by a quick camera pan over the characters watching the television.
“Le Havre” is unlike any film about immigration or really, any comedy you’re likely to see. Easily one of Kaurismaki’s best films to date, he has created a political crowdpleaser, a film that’s broadly appealing with an undercurrent of seriousness. But Kaurismaki succeeds because he hits the heart first. Kaurismaki quietly argues that the fate of Idrissa, and the proper treatment of refugees in general, has broader implications on the soul of a nation. Moving in a way that touched us unlike any film so far at Cannes, “Le Havre” isn’t afraid to believe in miracles or in the decency of the everyday person and while borders are solidified and protected daily, Kaurismaki suggests the ones we need to let our guard down with are the ones in our heart. [A]