2011, NR, 93 min. Directed by Aki Kaurismäki. Starring André Wilms, Kati Outinen, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Blondin Miguel.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Nov. 4, 2011
A fulsome optimism has crept into the world of Aki Kaurismäki, the Finnish director whose films have always been marked by their distinctive blend of deadpan humor and quotidian melodrama. Into Kaurismäki’s panoply of underdogs and abettors, outsiders, bohemians, and absurdists, there is now an added sense of people’s willingness to do good (though the characters would never be characterized as do-gooders or political activists, per se, but more as compassionate or reactive situationists).
Filmed in the Normandy port city of Le Havre, France, the film is Finland’s official nominee for this year’s Foreign Language Oscar. André Wilms is the wonderfully named character Marcel Marx, a name redolent of cinema and social history. An aging shoeshine man who claims to have been a bohemian in his younger years, Marcel loves his drink and his saucer-eyed wife Arletty (Kati Outinen, a Kaurismäki regular). He owes money to all the neighborhood merchants (his tab is as long as the Congo River, says one), but he and Arletty get by on the few euros he earns and a few more snatched baguettes. Then, two events occur: Arletty takes ill and must be hospitalized for a period, and the cops discover a shipping container on the docks that holds a passel of smuggled but misrouted humans from Gabon. A young boy named Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) escapes, and the newspapers trumpet the possibility of an al Qaeda connection. Marcel encounters the boy by accident and soon makes it his mission to reunite the boy with his mother, who is waiting in London. At every turn, it seems the trenchcoat-wearing Detective Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) appears, sniffing for clues. Amusingly, the one neighborhood bloke who rats out Idrissa’s whereabouts is played by Jean-Pierre Léaud, aka Antoine Doinel, Truffaut’s little boy lost in The 400 Blows.
Le Havre has no interest in the intricacies of illegal workers and immigration. The film is really a story about community and how it unites for something it deems important. But more, it is a story about mood and tone. Kaurismäki’s mordant humor – part verbal, part visual – remains intact. Cinematographer Timo Salminen frames everything crisply so that the city of Le Havre’s grays are illuminated with splashes of color yet retain a somewhat misty allure, as though he were filming a Forties spy drama like Casablanca. Le Havre seems to mark a bit of a shift toward more commercially minded fare for Kaurismäki, and it would be great to get him out of the arthouse ghetto he’s been remanded to in the States. Le Havre is not the filmmaker’s best work (see La Vie de Bohème for that), but no matter the storm, we should be grateful to dock in this port.
See "The Mighty Finn," Nov. 13, 2009, for more on the filmmaker.