Let’s be clear about one thing, Le Havre might be set in the present but it’s heart is very clearly right in the middle of French New Wave cinema. The only things giving away it’s modernity are a brief glimpse of a mobile phone and the politics of immigration that are deftly and comically explored. This busy, dirty, port city is presented fantastically as a vision of Gallic charm, winding roads, ramshackle houses, friendly dock workers, humorous shopkeeps and stoic bartenders all clash with the reality of an industrial city of commerce, angry and disillusioned blue collar workers and immigrant camps that are also on display.
Aki Kaurasmaki has nominally made a follow up to his only other totally French language film, La Vie de Boheme (1992) starring Andre Wilms as Marcel Marx. Wilms reprises his role in Le Havre, although times have been hard and he is now a shoeshiner scraping a living where he can. Marcel seems happy with his lot, a small, tidy house run by loving wife Arletty (kati Outinen), a friendly dog (Laika) and an assortment of pleasingly drawn charicatures of modern French life (Vietnamese immigrant pretending to be Chinese, shopkeepers he owes money to etc, etc). His life is disrupted when Arletty goes for an extended stay in hospital for what we know, but Marcel doesn’t, is terminal cancer. On the same day, Marcel befriends Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), a young boy from Gabon who evaded capture when the police discovered him and many others hiding in a cargo container bound for London. Deciding to help Idrissa reach England is the pleasingly illogical main storyline of Le Havre. Marcel enlists the help of his friends in hiding Idrissa from the police and they all gladly capitulate (bar one), treating Idrissa as a game and a way to get one over “the Man”. The casting of Jean-Pierre Leaud as seemingly the only man in Le Havre to object to Marcel’s harbouring of Idrissa (The Denouncer in the credits) is such a heavy chinned nod to the era the film aches to be part of that the choice itself becomes the joke.
The coming together of a community to help a poor, black boy get to London whilst simultaneously thumbing it’s nose at authority and by extension, the right wing government that has France in it’s grip at the moment is contrived but not overly so. Kaurismaki actively seeks to hide none key players, particularly authoritarian ones, twice we only hear the police sirens or voices coming from behind largely static camera positions (EBFS was reminded of the visually copless last moments of Reservoir Dogs, although in no way is that a comparison). The nominal “rules” of narrative are also playfully circumnavigated, the death of a spy, Idrissa’s initial escape from the police, Marcel’s gathering of 3000 euro’s all defy belief but, presumably deliberately, add to the folksy, storybooked charm.
Deadpan feels like a lazy word to describe Kaurismaki’s work but it certainly isn’t untrue. Outbreaks of raw emotion are rare (It would be a good bet on Wes Anderson being a fan of the Finn), rather, the emotion is to be gleaned between the lines, both dialogue and visuals. The comedy comes from precisely this, each characters perceived disinterest in the severity of the situation provide all the material to make quiet humour perfectly suited for the slightly embarrassed laughter heard in arthouse theatres. However, an excellent joke involving a well dressed gendarme and a pineapple is funny everywhere.
Kaurasmaki has tackled a difficult, topical, important subject and managed to bring some humour to a very serious table. He also plans to make this the first film in a trilogy of pieces set in European port cities and what’s not to like about that?