Clad in a trench coat and a fedora, a stern-faced man stops at a train station for a shoe shine. He looks like he’s straight out of a Jean-Pierre Melville film, and other similarly-dressed men are following him. Soon the stern-faced man is killed in a sudden flurry of gunfire. The murder is off-camera; Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki instead regards the shoeshine man, who makes an off-color joke before leaving the scene. This bizarre opening establishes the tone of Le Havre, a peculiar comedy about quirky people, not stylish gangsters. Kaurismäki’s latest is funny – at times very funny – but it also is about serious issues as well as the need for common decency.
Le Havre is a seaside town in Normandy, one where people do not seem to make a big fuss about their sense of community. The shoeshine man (André Wilms), named Marcel Marx, chats with his neighbors on his way home. His wife Arletty (Kati Outinen), always ready with dinner, complains about stomach pain one night. The doctor says she’s terminally ill, and Arletty wants to keep this secret from Marcel for as long as possible. She insists that Marcel must not visit while she undergoes tests.
Without a wife to look after him, Marcel finds other ways to occupy his time. He sees a TV report about refugees from Gabon, and how a young boy managed to escape. During his lunch break, Marcel sees the boy (Blondin Miguel ) and immediately offers him food. Not long afterward, he protects the boy from Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), Le Havre’s top policeman. After the boy turns up on Marcel’s doorstep – Kaurismäki never explains how he got there – we learn more about him. His name is Idrissa, and Marcel helps however he can, even organizing a charity concert on his behalf. But as Marcel stays busy, he has no idea how his wife’s condition worsens.
Superficially speaking, Le Havre has a lot in common with The Blind Side. Both movies are about memorable characters who take pity on a disadvantaged child. Whereas The Blind Side heightens the situation’s emotion, Le Havre is never showy about Marcel’s kindness. As he helps Idrissa and asks for favors from others, there is never any sense of sacrifice. Refreshingly, these characters internalize the right thing to do. Even Monet, the policeman who faces pressure to arrest Idrissa, understands how it’s wrong to deport the boy. These shared values have political implications: big institutions are indifferent to compassion, and villagers have a better understanding of what children need.
Kaurismäki’s direction is well-suited to his screenplay, which eschews melodrama in favor of observation. When the camera is not static, it moves deliberately, and characters stoically convey their humanity by staring right into the camera. The cinematography in particular is quirky and beautiful. Colors are bold yet dim, and many shots could double as Edward Hopper paintings. Some sequences, like the benefit concert, are strange reflection of life in Normady. Bluesman Little Bob is the only act in the concert, and his stage presence is oddly mesmerizing (he’s also quite short). Only after the movie was over did I found out that Little Bob plays himself, and even has a French Wikipedia page.
Le Havre takes its time. At first, I didn’t know what to make of Marcel and his neighbors. When Idrissa pops up, the plot had me thinking the movie would veer into cliché. But once it became clear the movie would never go out of its way to be likable, instead trusting audiences would meet it halfway, I was won over. Kaurismäki’s confidence never waivers, so familiar scenes have deep reserves of humor and even suspense. American entertainment like this often comes with an over-abundance of twee mannerisms. In the best possible way, Le Havre is way, way too provincial and European for that.