Aki Kaurismäki, “Le Havre” (2011)
A heartwarming comedy drama that focusses on deception and the plight of illegal migrants, “Le Havre” features characters, a plot and a deadpan style that masks deep emotion and warmth typical of Kaurismäki’s films. Failed bohemian writer Marcel Marx (Andre Wilms) and his wife Arletty (Kati Outinen) live in a tiny house in a down-and-out neighbourhood in the French port of Le Havre; Marcel ekes out a living cleaning customers’ shoes at the town’s main train station together with his friend Chang. One day Arletty falls sick with a stomach tumour and must be rushed to hospital. At the same time, French police intercept a shipping container in which several illegal migrants from Africa are hiding; while the cops and the Red Cross workers are interviewing the migrants, one of them, a young boy called Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), manages to run away. He meets Marcel at the town’s harbour and Marcel, left alone with pet dog Laika, gladly takes the boy in and shields him from the police. From then on, Marcel juggles the task of finding Idrissa’s grandfather and obtaining the London address of the youngster’s mother while keeping him out of trouble and away from Inspector Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) who has been tasked with the job of flushing out Idrissa and taking him into custody.
The plot is highly improbable and Marcel manages to bluff his way through situations that ordinary mortals would simply fail at: he convinces a detective that he is a lawyer; he reconciles an estranged couple so that his charity concert, intended to raise money for Idrissa’s journey across the English Channel, can go ahead; he and Idrissa have several close escapes from the police. The characters’ dialogue is deadpan comic and doesn’t express any emotion at all; the actors themselves express feeling through eye contact and body language. Obviously the more experienced and older actors do a better job of conveying feeling through gestures and looks than Miguel does as Idrissa but since the young actor is portraying a shy and quiet boy, the one-dimensional character of Idrissa can be overlooked; the emotional centre of the film is Marcel and Arletty, stoic and resigned at the hand life has dealt them both but faithful and loving to each other and able to appreciate small gestures of love and care from each other and their neighbours. Everyone in Marcel’s neighbourhood has suffered hardship but bears up with good-humoured resilience and looks out for one another when the heavy hand of authority invades the street with brutality and bureaucratic indifference.
The comedy addresses in small ways some serious issues in modern French society: the fear and paranoia people feel towards illegal African and specifically Muslim migrants who are imagined to be linked to terrorist groups; the plight of these migrants and poor people like the Marxes, forced to survive in an underground economy disowned by the larger society, itself beset by financial crisis and uncertainty; the thuggishness of the police of whom only Monet proves to possess any humanity in spite of his avowed dislike for people (his character simply underlines the indifference and brutish nature of the police – and by extension, the French government authorities – towards ordinary people; the need for people to dissemble or fake their identities or life stories in order to survive or to maintain relationships. In the end, faith in themselves and hope that life can allow miracles to happen in an otherwise uncaring world are all that Marcel, Idrissa and those who help them rely on to remain and feel alive.
The film’s eccentric style and characters are reinforced by the eclectic choice of music and an enjoyable diversion into a rock’n’roll performance by an ageing Elvis wannabe rock star Little Bob (Robert Piazza aka Little Bob) at Marcel’s charity gig. No-one can say that French people can’t rock after this movie!
Very similar to a previous film “The Man with no Past” which also starred Kati Outinen and with many of the same plot devices, “Le Havre” is a warm and compassionate film about the value of community, love and friendships that cross social barriers and bureaucracy.