REVIEW: Aki Kaurismäki's Ornery Humanist Spirit Shines in Le Havre
There's a danger in dismissing Aki Kaurismäki's Le Havre as lightweight just because it takes the most generous attitude possible toward human nature. Being jaundiced about the world is easy -- it takes relatively little energy to expect the worst from everyone. But it's harder, as the dour Finnish filmmaker has shown us time and again, to allow for the possibility of surprise in the way people behave and treat one another, and the rewards are far greater. Kaurismäki's comedies are characteristically charcoal-toned -- never quite black -- but the unapologetically hopeful Le Havre is more silvery-gray. It's an open-hearted Eeyore of a movie.
Le Havre is set (and was filmed) in Normandy, starring an array of French actors. The best-known of those may be Jean-Pierre Léaud, who plays a bad guy, an informer, though even that bit of casting is a sly joke, as if Truffaut and Godard's impish devil had grown up to be a more malevolent troublemaker. And even though one of the key actors here, Kaurismäki regular Kati Outinen, is Finnish, her character has the most French of French names, a movie-star name, Arletty.
Arletty is the wife of Marcel (played by the soulfully weathered André Wilms, a French actor who has also previously worked with Kaurismäki), an aged shoeshine guy who's fond of his wine, but who in his youth, as he tells another character, used to be an artist, a bohemian. Marcel goes about his routine in relaxed obliviousness: At the end of a typically not-very-productive workday, he buys a loaf of bread on credit from a nearby shop and brings his meager earnings, minus the bit he's already spent on late-afternoon tipple, home to the saucer-eyed, gently good-natured Arletty. She then hands a few euro back to him, suggesting he go around the corner for an aperitif -- she knows how much he enjoys it.
But then two things happen to Marcel in quick succession, drastically changing the texture of his life: 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, with silent-movie expressiveness, 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 members of his family.
Marcel isn't alone in his sense of decency. There's an air of conviviality in Le Havre, in the way the locals gather for drinks and gossip but also keep tender secrets safe for one another. The various shopkeepers in the 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 the wonderfully named Inspector Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) come calling.
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 his characteristic 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 lyrical even though it moves forward in the typical Kaurismäki fits-and-starts -- its gracefulness settles like a mantle around it, more beautiful for all its bumps and wrinkles. The movie's 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. The picture is gently pointed in the way it rails against the aggressive tactics employed by European governments against refugees from other nations, and suggests a way forward, inch by optimistic inch: This is a wry mini-treatise on the necessity of being kind and having guts.
Le Havre, shot by Kaurismäki's regular cinematographer Timo Salminenalso, is also gorgeous to look at: Frame by frame, it's a marvel of lighting -- the images look soft and bright at once, as if old Hollywood craftsmanship had been happily wed with modern straightforwardness and simplicity. The movie steps at first tentatively then boldly toward a blissfully happy ending that still manages to be true to Kaurismäki's ornery humanist spirit, and the visual beauty of Le Havre blossoms, quite literally, in the last shot. There is hope for humankind yet. Meanwhile, there's also time for another drink.
Editor's note: Portions of this review appeared earlier, in a slightly different form, in Stephanie Zacharek's Cannes Film Festival coverage.