Blondin Miguel as Idrissa in Le Havre
Don’t expect to see Scandinavian musicians with extremely pointy shoes and hairstyles. The wacky characters in Aki Kaurismaki’s Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989) do not appear in Le Havre, an equally deadpan new film by the Finnish writer-director that has much more of a beating heart. He sets this one in the French port city, where an occasional cell phone is the rare hint of modernity in an otherwise thoroughly convincing early 1950s ambiance. This version of the seaside Normandy town is populated by a quaint citizenry whose clothing, homes, shops and cars are very mid-20th century. In a working-class neighborhood, their normally sedate existence becomes less so due to an issue that has exploded in the 21st-century: undocumented immigrants. These days in America, they’re often dismissively referred to merely as “illegals.”
With In This World (2002), Michael Winterbottom was among the first filmmakers in recent decades to address the plight of refugees in a compassionate way. That docudrama concerned young men from Afghanistan making their way across an often hostile Europe in hopes of a better future than is possible back home. Le Havre centers on an adolescent boy named Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) from Gabon who escapes when police discover a huddled mass of Africans in a shipping container on the docks. He’s later spotted hidden in the shallow water behind wooden pilings by Marcel (Andre Wilms), a local man with a marginal career shining shoes in an era of Nikes – along with cell phones, another 2011 touch. Ditto for sensationalist newspaper headlines that suggest the fugitive lad being hunted by cops could be linked to al-Qaeda.
Marcel intuits that Idrissa is simply a scared, hungry kid. He shelters him in his modest house and tries to figure out what to do next. The proprietors of nearby small businesses help out. The grocer (Francois Monnie), the baker Yvette (Evelyne Didi) and tavern owner Claire (Elina Salo) all share in the secret, thwarting a snitch (Jean-Pierre Leaud) and a relentless investigation by Inspector Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin). Because this is a Kaurismaki production, the many absurdist elements include le flic walking into the bar at one point holding a pineapple. There’s a plot-driven reason for the fruit prop but it’s wonderfully contrived to provide comic dissonance.
Pierre Etaix and Kati Outinen in Le Havre
Le Havre is a showcase for an array of genuinely quirky people and progressive ideas. The family name of Marcel and Arletty? Marx. But Kaurismaki is not a polemicist. He has said: “I think the more pessimistic I feel about life, the more optimistic my films should be.” Optimistic, yes, though with a droll soupçon of weather-beaten realism. Realism is somewhat of an exaggeration, of course, given the vintage patina overlaid on a contemporary city (courtesy of cinematographer Timo Salminen and set designer Wouter Zoon). The outlook is probably more that of an enigmatic and melancholy fairytale.
“Maybe my films are not masterpieces,” the auteur has noted, “but they are documents of their time. That’s enough for me.” Nonetheless, he could well have turned out a mini-masterpiece – it earned a top prize at Cannes this year – that plays with the notion of time. The word “havre” means harbor but a second definition is “haven.” The movie’s safe haven demimonde swinging into action on behalf of a lost black child sums up the sort of compassion so lacking in the current debate about “illegals.” To paraphrase an old English idiom, bless their pointy little heads.
- originally published on November 4, 2011 in Critics at Large.