Aki Kaurismäki seems unable to make a film that isn’t described by critics as “deadpan.” Even the back of the DVD for Kaurismäki’s latest, Le Havre (out recently from the redoubtable Criterion Collection), can’t resist calling it a “charming, deadpan delight.” But I think that the D-word – which usually suggests a detached, unemotional humor (cf. the work of Kaurismaki’s friend and contemporary, Jim Jarmusch) – isn’t exactly apt in the case of Le Havre. Barely concealed under its poker face is a wistful utopian dream.
Marcel Marx (Andre Wilms) is a bohemian Parisian who has relocated to the titular seaside city to ply his trade as a shoeshiner. Marcel barely scrapes enough Euros together to pay for his grocery debts and a nightly glass of wine at a café. Despite his uncertain financial situation, Marcel is happy. His patient, attentive wife, Arletty (Kaurismäki mainstay Kati Outinen), greets him every evening with a hot meal, he miraculously avoids any real work, and his debtors are rendered more amused than litigious by his harmless irresponsibility.
But on the other side of Marcel’s bubble is the real world, which is infected with civil unrest. We first meet Marcel after one of his clients is gunned down in a gang-related incident immediately following Marcel’s shoeshine. Soon afterward, his wife is diagnosed with terminal cancer, a fact she conceals from him out of consideration of his fragile spirit (“He’s just a big child,” she laments to her doctor). Arletty endeavors to face death alone while her doctor tries to feed her optimistic platitudes that he clearly doesn’t believe himself. “Miracles do happen,” he mutters. “Not in my neighborhood,” Arletty responds.
While Arletty is in the hospital undergoing two weeks of chemotherapy, Marcel encounters a Gabonese child, Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) who has escaped deportation by the local police and is trying to gain illegal passage to London where his mother waits for him. With Arletty out of the house and little else going on in his life, Marcel takes up the plight of the boy, first feeding and housing him and eventually plotting to smuggle him aboard a London-bound sailboat.
The one-line summary of Kaurismäki’s film – quirky white people play savior to an embattled minority – has the unfortunate ring of Indiewood Oscar bait. There are times the film dips into this territory, particularly when it takes a side trip into a bizarre, leaden musical interlude involving real-life local Le Havre celebrity, “Little Bob” Roberto Piazza. Here the film dips rather too much into quirk-for-quirk's-sake for my taste. More often than not, however, what shines through is Kaurismäki’s vision of a world where people actually care for each other. There’s a sincere warmth to his characters that put me in the mind of the ragtag ensemble of Claire Denis’s 35 RHUMS
Kaurismäki’s visual style is more assured here than ever. His very deliberate color palate falls somewhere between an Edward Hopper painting and a Playmobil set. There are plenty of nice moments that go “nowhere” according to the bylaws of screenwriting but add to Kaurismäki’s textured, easy look at a world where people take the Golden Rule seriously.
The Criterion disc comes appointed with an assortment of extras, including an interview with Wilms and more performance footage of Little Bob in concert.