All's Well in “Le Havre”
by Justin Senkbile
In Aki Kaurismäki's deceptively simple new comedy, “Le Havre”, André Wilms plays a former bohemian and currently aging shoeshine man named Marcel Marx. Marcel lugs his gear around the French port city of Le Havre, and brings his crumpled euros back home each evening to wife Arletty (frequent Kaurismäki collaborator Kati Outinen). Its evident they're barely making ends meet, but all is peaceful in the Marx household.
Even when a bunch of illegal immigrants are discovered in a shipping container, and one of them, a young boy, manages to escape the police, the pacific mood around the neighborhood is barely disrupted. It's Arletty's sudden hospitalization that sends Marcel whirling. But almost as soon as she's been admitted he meets the fugitive boy, Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), and instinctively begins to help him.
His innate antipathy towards the immigration laws, and towards the steely-eyed Inspector Monet (Jean-Pierre Darrousin), who is busy hunting for Idrissa, is something shared just as automatically by his neighbors. Yvette (Evelyne Didi), the baker, happily shelters Idrissa while Marcel goes searching for the boy's family. And the grocer Epicier (François Monnié) is a key component of Idrissa's escape plan at the end. The only person who actually seems threatened by the fact that this hungry kid has entered his country is a nosy informer, played by the iconic Jean-Pierre Leaud.
What would likely take up a number of precious scenes and minutes in an American film about immigration isn't even an afterthought for Kaurismäki's characters. There are no moments of internal conflict about what's legal and what's right, about state law versus human morality. Because the situation is simple: the boy needs help.
This might classify as a rosy perspective of Europe, which hasn't historically embraced immigrants, especially when they're black and undocumented. But not a moment of this love-soaked picture seems false or pandering. Though it is dealing directly with current, dire situations, “Le Havre” has the feeling of being a fable more than anything else – or maybe even a fairy tale.
With the help of his constant cinematographer Timo Salminen, Kaurismäki shows us this city with his usual, irresistible twist of unreality. The paint is peeling and the appliances are well-worn in the homes and bars we visit, but the colors are eye-poppingly rich, and a phrase of lushly “movie” music swells up periodically. Kaurismäki's Le Havre is very much a real place - with real cops and real dirt – but it's also a fantasy world, where a sense of community thrives, and love and compassion can indeed conquer all.
“Le Havre” ends up being something like a deadpan, European flavored Frank Capra picture: honest but never cynical, and romantic without ever feeling superficial. It's the sort of movie one might mark off as a guilty pleasure if it wasn't so deeply, immediately touching.
“Le Havre” is playing at the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center, 13th and R streets, through January 19.