Le Havre

Finland/France (2011) Dir. Aki Kaurismäki

In the port city of Le Havre lives former playwright Marcel Marx (André Wilms) and his wife Arletty (Kati Outine) and their Golden Retriever Laika, getting by with a humble but meagre lifestyle and Marcel’s less than profitable shoeshine business. Just as Arletty is taken ill and hospitalised, Marcel meets Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), an African immigrant on the run from the authorities.

With the help of the other members of the community, Marcel helps Idrissa avoid capture by pugnacious Detective Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) and raise the money to send Idrissa to England.

Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismäki is known for his slow building, humane tales that somehow defy their melancholic moods and settings to end up uplifting and life affirming. Usually basing his films in his native Helsinki, Kaurismäki takes a trip to France for the second time in his film making career (after 1992’s La Vie de Bohème which also starred André Wilms as Marcel) after Le Havre provided the best location settings for this tale of communal disobedience for a good cause.

Marcel leads a simple and fairly life, taking in his favourite shops, cafe, bar and his shoeshine business which doesn’t exactly bring home the bacon, while Arletty runs the home until her illness separates them, the seriousness of which Arletty downplays to allow her husband to carry on with his daily routines without any extra worry.

Meanwhile port authorities find a cargo container heavily populated with families of African immigrants, from which Idrissa flees, ending up sleeping rough wherever he can find a quiet space. Marcel takes pity on the lad and with the extra space at home, takes Idriss in and the rest of the locals, all of whom respect Marcel, follow his example and send some extra food his way and put a roof over Idriss’s head while Marcel hunts down Idriss’s relatives.

To raise the money for Idriss to go to England, Marcel manages to persuade local singer Little Bob (Roberto Piazza – a real life Italian rocker) to stage a comeback concert. The proverbial spanner in the works is the officious, uptight, by-the-book Detective Monet, whose dour, ashen appearance matches his unsociable and almost inhuman personality, sucking the life out of every room he enters.

With a Terminator like tenacity, Monet turns up and every conceivable location and opportunity in his search for Idriss, fully aware that the whole town is conspiring against him but he remains resolute in doing his job.

Kaurismäki’s films aren’t laugh out loud funny but they possess a gentle wit which permeates through the defiant acts of the locals as they do their best to obstruct Monet’s investigation. Even though their actions are essentially lawfully wrong one can’t help but raise a smirk or two whenever they outsmart the stuffy policeman.

The key theme of many of Kaurismäki’s tales is how people with nothing are willing to open their doors to others while those more prosperous are less charitable. Kaurismäki creates believable and likeable characters, real salt of the earth types that the viewer can relate to and support throughout the film while authority figures, no matter how “right” they may be, are the default enemy. It is this warmth of character and altruism which makes these outings such simple pleasures to enjoy.   

The visual style and tone of this film is palpably French and not the usual cold and grey atmosphere of Kaurismäki’s Helsinki, highlighting the huge influence French filmmakers had on the Finnish director. The colour pallet is slightly muted to give this a  70’s feel to it, with a mobile phone used late in the film being the only true sign of modernity throughout the entire 93 minute run. Each performance is pitch perfect and nuanced to create a natural environment among the cast, with Monet’s near robotic turn remaining congruent.

Le Havre – which is the first in a planned trilogy set across Europe – is a simple, almost whimsical tale of humans being humane towards one another, reminding us the communal spirit is still a force to be reckoned with and not a lost concept. It’s gentle, laid back storytelling with heart and joie de vivre.