When an African boy arrives by cargo ship in the port city of Le Havre, an aging shoe shiner takes pity on the child and welcomes him into his home.
Marcel Marx (Wilms) is the down on his luck shoeshine man. He lives a small life; there is his work, his favourite bar and his wife Arletty (Outinen). She doesn’t appear to be living the life she wants, but she tends to all of Marcel’s needs, dutifully. When she falls ill, Marcel is rather lost. Arletty seems to move even further away emotionally as she concentrates on getting well in hospital. Taking care of Idrissa, the African runaway (Miguel) gives Marcel’s days some focus.
LE HAVRE is the latest film from Finnish writer/director Aki Kaurismäki. It could be described as quirkly and offbeat if these terms hadn’t become red flags for the wary filmgoer. The fact remains, that if you haven’t seen a Kaurismäki film before, then Le Havre will probably be a difficult film to ‘read’ at first. I had no idea of how to understand Marcel or Arletty for perhaps half of the film.
There is a certain kind of flat drama or deadpan humour running through LE HAVRE that audiences will eventually tune into if they give it a chance. There are no declarative speeches, action scenes nor any big moments to speak of. Small things happen in sequence; minute causes and their effects. Eventually I stopped trying to second-guess the filmmaker and let the tale spin out in it’s quiet, yet determined way–and it paid off.
LE HAVRE the film looks amazing. Le Havre the port looks beaten down by poverty. Kaurismäki and his cinematographer Timo Salminen have made some eccentric but spot-on decisions. Much of the film is lit to suggest a black and white movie from the 1940s, however the images are in colour. Some of the images don’t have this kind of self-conscious affectedness and are composed and lit in a contemporary manner.
There is one scene in which the arrival of the police is suggested only by a sound effect and a flashing blue light. In the hands of a novice director this kind of simplicity might come off as inept or unintentionally laughable–but Kaurismäki creates a perfectly judged comedic moment. Some of the scenes between subsidiary characters making anodyne conversation have a Jim Jarmusch-like feel about them; unsurprisingly Kaurismäki’s work has been frequently compared with that of the American director.
In the end, there is a surprising amount of emotion in this reserved film with its guarded characters. The arrival of Idrissa affects all the people in this part of Le Havre. Their world is working-class, run-down and tightly-knit. This community is in a rut and keeping the immigration authorities away from the boy wakes them up.
LE HAVRE is intended as the first of a trilogy of films set in European port cities . This film is engaging, unusual and fun in an unassuming way. It runs for 93 minutes and is in French with English subtitles. It is currently screening as part of the Perth Festival. I rated it 4/5.