Review: Le Havre
Le Havre is a fairy tale. Set amidst domestic shabbiness and commercial ugliness in the French port city from which it takes its name, it radiates a charm buoyant yet wistful.
Finnish writer-director Aki Kaurismäki has composed a film about small miracles which is itself a small miracle. Its deceptively subdued surface shimmers with wonders and improbabilities, the whimsically incongruent blending effortlessly with the spiritually redemptive.
The main character is Marcel Marx (André Wilms), a paunchy, middle-aged, Buster Keaton-like stoneface. Stoic with an indefatigable resolve, Marcel ekes out a humble living as a shoeshiner on the uninspiring streets of Le Havre.
In a film where the incredible is constantly being passed off as the unremarkably normal, Marcel’s back story is that he was once a writer in Paris. From bohemian author in romantic Paris to menial polisher of shoes in provincial Le Havre: in fairy tales such transmogrifications do happen, and this is a fairy tale.
A failed (and no doubt formerly wildly promiscuous) Paris novelist becomes a lowly shoeshiner in unexotic Le Havre and a devoted husband: this is Gaugin in reverse. But whereas Gaugin painted masterpieces on canvas, Marcel himself is transfigured into a masterpiece – of humanity.
The plot concerns Marcel’s knight-like quest to re-unite a runaway teenage boy Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), an illegal African immigrant, with his family in England. A concert is organised to raise money to pay a ship’s captain to smuggle Idrissa across the Channel. Enter Little Bob (Roberto Piazza).
A 60-something, 1950s-coiffed rock-n-roller, Little Bob very nearly steals the movie. The rock number he belts out in English detonates as a totally unexpected musical interlude, a weird yet delightful contrast to the somewhat robotic, Robert Bresson-influenced style of acting in the rest of the film.
Jean-Pierre Darroussin plays local police inspector Monet (like Marx, a wonderfully silly-evocative name). Dressed in black and looking like he should be a baddie, Monet in this yearning-for-the-ideal, epiphany-laden movie turns out to be not a baddie, but a soft-hearted goodie. Declining to carry out his official duty by arresting the fugitive African boy, he follows a higher morality and allows Idrissa to escape.
Immigration is a vexed issue in France and Le Havre doesn’t presume to offer any glib solutions. What it does say is this: all humans belong to the same family, and they are at their transcendent best when they recognise this and act with compassion. This shouldn’t be the stuff of miracles.
The other major character is Marcel’s wife Arletty (Kati Outinen). Hospitalized – in keeping with the film’s droll brand of quasi-surrealist humour, bedside visitors read Kafka to her – her mystery illness mysteriously disappears. What else, but another miracle.
No French comedy is complete without a string of eccentric minor characters. Much more than just a comedy, in Le Havre hardly anybody isn’t quirky: shopkeepers, café patrons, neighbours (including a Count Dracula looking Jean-Pierre Léaud as the film’s principal villain).
The film probingly asks of an audience: Do you believe in grace-bestowing miracles? Or are you trapped inside ordinary reality with its petty limitations and routine oppressions? And do you believe in human goodness, in the life-regenerating power of that goodness?
The layered dynamics of this endlessly subtle film – on one reading a sentimental fantasy, on another a scathing satire – guarantee a critics’ feast for years to come.
Is it going too far to say that what other directors have done for other French cities over a series of films – Jean-Luc Godard for Paris, Robert Guédiguian for Marseilles – Aki Kaurismäki in a single work has now done for Le Havre?
Picture: André Wilms and Blondin Miguel against the backdrop of Le Havre’s port.