Le Havre Review


Aki Kaurasmaki’s Le Havre does for the small French village what Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris does for its titular city. Kaurasmaki presents an uber-romantic view of the kind of community where everyone knows everyone, and baguette and stinky cheese can be bought on every corner. It seems more than a little unrealistic, but coupled with its quirky characters and gleefully over-the-top score, it becomes something unexpected: A deadpan fairytale. Though it lacks focus and feels a lot longer than it actually is, I must recommend it because of the very thin line between surprising and heartwarming that it somehow manages to walk.

In the French port city of Le Havre, shoeshiner Marcel Marx (Andre Wilms) lives a simple life. After work, he stops for groceries at the same shops, stopping to chitchat with the same people. He gets a drink of wine at the same bar, always populated with the same patrons. Then, he heads home to his loving wife, Arletty (Kati Outinen), and starts it all again the next day. But very suddenly, a series of events throws his world for a loop. First, Arletty is stricken ill and hospitalized. Treatable cancer, he’s told, is the problem, though Arletty knows the truth: Her disease is terminal. He also encounters a young Gabonese boy, Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), who snuck into the country via shipping container with his family. He’s the only one who managed to escape, and though every law enforcer within 50 miles is after him, Marcel takes pity and decides to help him make his way to London—his intended destination and the place where his mother lives. All he needs to do is outfox the steadfast and suspicious inspector, Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin).

Le Havre is as much a story about a place as it is about people. The film’s tone makes it unclear to me whether he has genuine affection for places like this or if he’s intending to send them up, but if it’s the latter, I think he’s failed. Le Havre makes me long for a place where everybody knows your name and wouldn’t think twice to help you when you’re in need. It sounds schmaltzy, I know, but Kaurasmaki dampens it all somewhat with dourness that feels both welcome and misplaced. As I stated earlier, the tone is a little all over the place, but it’s hard to argue with how the finished product made me feel.

It’s interesting how, on the surface, the film seems to be about Marcel’s attempts to help Idrissa, but this all fades to the background fairly quickly. Though I’m glad in a way (what Kaurasmaki does instead is much more satisfying than that story ever would be on its own), it does make the film drag in places. The director can’t ignore this thread completely, however, and though the way he concludes it is a bit obvious, it’s handled as well as it could have been.

As far as performances go, the film is full of good ones. The best is Darroussin’s as the inspector, easily the most complicated individual in the film. He’s a lot like Kevin Bacon’s character, Sean, in Mystic River. It’s clear he was once part of Marcel’s community—a place where laws aren’t maliciously broken, but they aren’t followed to a T, either. Monet gave that lifestyle up to become a law enforcer, and he isn’t well-received as a result. He’s something of a turncoat, and that title weighs heavy on him.

As Marcel, Andre Wilms doesn’t need to do a ton, but he effective conveys the film’s complicated tone. Ditto Kati Outinen and Blondin Miguel, though the former nearly disappears about halfway through, and the latter, as I’ve said, doesn’t have a ton to do throughout.

I have my doubts regarding Le Havre‘s ability to resonate, but it’s definitely a pleasant watch. It’s not all that challenging, but damn if it didn’t manage to surprise me on a few occasions. It’s a shame it didn’t get the Best Foreign Language Film citation most expected because I think it’d be a nice antidote to your typically heavy fare in that category. Alas, it was probably a little too confounding for Academy voters. Their loss.

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