CANNES REVIEW: Aki Kaurismäki Lets the Sunshine in with Winsome Le Havre

In the press notes for Aki Kaurismäki's lovely, unassuming, buoyantly sad-sacky Le Havre, French journalist Christine Masson asks the famously depressive Finnish filmmaker if his favorite cinematic references -- Bresson, Becker, Melville, Tati, René Clair, Marcel Carné -- are present in the film. "I certainly hope so," he says, "because I didn't bring anything myself."

That's a sly bit of understatement, because Le Havre couldn't have been made by anyone other than Kaurismäki: It manages to be lyrical even though it moves forward in the typical Kaurismäki fits-and-starts. Its jokes are so gentle, and delivered with such deadpan assurance, that it sometimes takes a split second for you to register how absurdly funny they are. It's also a gently pointed political statement: Le Havre, which is set in Normandy and whose cast consists largely of French actors, quietly rails against the aggressive tactics employed by European governments against refugees from other nations.

Marcel Marx (André Wilms), used to be a bohemian writer in Paris. Now he's retired to the port city of Le Havre, where he works (when he works at all) shining shoes, living quietly with his wife, Arletty (Kati Outinen). Arletty suddenly becomes ill with a serious, possibly incurable ailment and must be hospitalized. At roughly the same time, a recently arrived shipping container is discovered to contain a group of African refugees. They're taken into custody, but one boy escapes. The newspaper headlines urge citizens to look out for this dangerous criminal. One reads, "Armed and dangerous. Connected to Al Qaeda?"

Marcel discovers the boy hiding near the docks, and instead of turning him in, leaves food and money. The boy's name is Idrissa (he's played by Blondin Miguel), and Marcel and his trusty dog Laika (played by a honey-toned charmer who is, the press notes tell us, "a canine actress of 5th generation") shelter him from the authorities. Marcel also tries to find a way to get him to London, where he'll be able to rejoin his mother.

Marcel isn't alone in his sense of decency. The various shopkeepers in his neighborhood, who often grumble about Marcel's failure to pay his bills, send food for Idrissa. They also keep mum about his whereabouts when the authorities, in the form of Inspector Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) come calling. (Jean-Pierre Leaud appears in a small role, as a creepy informer.)

Le Havre proceeds from the usual Kaurismäkian premise: Things are only going to get worse, so why not just go with it? And still, Kaurismäki infuses the picture with a kind of oddball grace. (He also tucks in a wild little performance from French pop singer Little Bob, a.k.a. Roberto Piazza, who rocks the joint in a red leather jacket and silvery quiff.) Le Havre is a wry mini-treatise on the necessity of being kind and having guts. It also has a blissfully happy ending that still manages to be true to Kaurismäki's dour humanist spirit. To quote those press notes again -- and only because Kaurismäki is so damn entertaining, and so spot-on -- Masson asks him, "In France our motto is 'Liberté, egalité, fraternité.' It seems the one you kept is Fraternité, brotherhood?" The reply is pure Kaurismäki: "The other two were always too optimistic. But fraternité you can find anywhere, even in France!"