A very slight but heartwarming picture no doubt, from the master of Euro deadpan, Aki Kaurismäki. The story of a humble shoeshiner who takes in an African refugee works best as a quiet comedy, delightful but not profound, and arguably over-praised in its Cannes/Toronto festival journey.
Le Havre (2011) dir. Aki Kaurismäki
Starring: André Wilms, Blondin Miguel, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Kati Outinen
By Alan Bacchus
Aki Kaurismäki’s films certainly won't provide shock and awe, but they do give a very palpable optimistic and humanistic viewpoint on topical and serious issues. Here, Kaurismäki is in France, specifically the French port city of Le Havre, a city famous for being the demarcation point for refugees fleeing the continent for the UK and beyond. Kaurismäki’s hero is a Capra-esque loner, Marcel Marx, a ne’er-do-well elderly man, eking out an existence as a lowly street shoeshiner. As played by Andre Wilms, Marcel silently cries out for our sympathy. And it’s not hard to dish it out when early on we see his wife admitted to the hospital with a potentially fateful but unnamed diagnosis.
Marcel finds his solace in the most unlikely of places, namely a young black teenager called Idrissa who escaped custody after he and a group of fellow refugees were found holed up in a cargo container at the docks. The pair barely speaks to each other, but Marcel senses Idrissa’s pleas for help and Idrissa senses Marcel’s compassion. On their tail is the passively persistent detective who pursues Idrissa and casts a suspecting eye on Marcel. It's Marcel’s neighbours who create a Capra-like rally of support for Idrissa and Marcel and help the pair best the weary detective.
Kaurismäki’s distinct cinematic visual style complements the eccentric tone and silent-cinema approach. There’s something about Timo Salminen’s cinematography that creates a sense of artificial but effective drama. It’s partly an overlit studio style, lighting the characters with strong sources of light, unafraid of the harsh shadows which sometimes appear in the background. A stagey look results, like the dioramic look of Wes Anderson.
Kaurismäki’s modus operandi, his deadpan style, is always front and centre, perhaps overly so. Marcel’s glum demeanor can feel forced, as he seems to be begging too hard for our sympathy when it's not warranted. And forgotten-about almost completely is Idrissa, who is less a character than a cipher for the plot. Kaurismäki cleverly makes a statement without the need to push the buttons most issue-driven films bombard us with. And the ace in his hole is a marvelous denouement, Marcel's reunion with his wife, which might seem like an unmotivated deus ex machina, but it's an ending that works because it just 'feels right.'
Le Havre is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.