If Aki Kaurismäki is to be believed, Le Havre is still the kind of neighborly town where you can wake up your doctor from down the street in the middle of the night because your wife is ill. Such heartwarming hospitality depicted in the Finnish filmmaker’s fictionalized version of this port city in Northern France is closer to a Yasujiro Ozu movie of the 1930s than that of real world in the 21st century. I can guarantee you will see the word “fairytale” in any given review of this film.
True to the director’s distinctive style, the characters in Le Havre speak monotonously and gesture with restrain, which young viewers may akin to the quirkiness of a Wes Anderson feature. But Kaurismäki cannot be any further away from Anderson’s ultra-hip aesthetics of the privileged crowd. Hobos and wrinkled-faced working people in frugal attire are more in line with the kind of stories that the Finn likes to tell. Le Havre’s hero Marcel (André Wilms) is a poor but content shoeshiner who has inadvertently crossed paths with Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), a child refugee from Africa. Without hesitation, Marcel and his friendly neighbors decide to help the boy reconnect with his family as they shield him from the police officers, led by the unrelenting Detective Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), whose vague intentions offer an ambiguous threat. The plight of immigrants is in the forefront of the film, despite its unabashedly optimistic take on human nature.
Le Havre is unapologetic for its innocence and complete lack of cynicism. “I have no answer to this problem, but I still wanted to deal with this matter in this anyhow [sic] unrealistic film,” Kaurismäki put it plainly in his director’s statement. The police chief, who is biggest threat to the hapless Idrissa, can only be heard but not be seen while the nosy neighbor who snitched on the heroes is played by the legendary Jean-Pierre Léaud with the sort of oddball grumpiness that makes it impossible to dislike him. There is simply no room for villains. In theory, such an attitude should have produced a sugarcoated melodrama. Yet in Kaurismäki’s hands, Le Havre comes out as so surreally hopeful that it takes advantage of its audience’s suspension of disbelief like a fantasy or sci-fi movie. Kaurismäki toys with the level of realism by altering between meticulously color-coded and dramatically lit indoor scenes and the naturalistic sceneries of the outdoor locations. Viewers are grounded to the pressing reality which the characters face while not being fooled in believing everything that is shown on the screen. At a time when even television shows are imitating real life, it feels ironically yet also refreshingly honest for a filmmaker to be confident enough to show some flair in his mise en scène without being sidetracked from his thematic focus.
Le Havre will be play at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston on 2/18 (1:00pm & 7:00pm) and 2/19 (5:00pm).