Some films are too good to be saddled with that paralysing epithet, “heart-warming”. One thinks of smiling, rosey-cheeked children, poor but honest parents, perhaps a loveable old codger, and a dog. Aki Kaurismaki’s Le Havre has the dog, it has the salt-of-the-earth characters, but it also has a vein of surreal humour that never allows us to drown in syrup.
We feel something is ‘heart-warming’ when it confounds our expectations that things will go badly for the truly vulnerable characters. Most of the time such feel-good tales only manage to induce feelings of creeping nausea. Not so Le Havre, a deceptively simple story loaded with sly gags and allusions. It is a movie that vanquishes cynicism, shuns sentimentality, and makes a powerful statement about the world’s ongoing refugee crisis.
The hero is Marcel Marx (André Wilms), an elderly Bohemian, who makes a living by shining shoes. His surname is no coincidence. His wife (Kati Outinen), is named Arletty, after the actress who played the working class heroine in a series of classic French films of the 30s and 40s. Other names seem to be chosen just for fun. The head policeman (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) is Inspecteur Monet and there is even a Madame Flaubert.
Marcel has just seen his wife taken to hospital, where she will be diagnosed with a malignant form of cancer. Shortly afterwards he comes across Idrissa, a young illegal immigrant from Gabon, and feels an instant sense of compassion. He takes Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) into his home, and goes to a refugee camp to search for the boy’s relatives.
The first in a series of minor miracles is that Marcel’s neighbours, the small shop-keepers, begin treating him with a new warmth. They give him food and help protect the boy. Monet, the hard-boiled policeman assigned the job of catching Idrissa, turns out to be a friend.
The only bad guy is Jean-Pierre Léaud, the aging veteran of Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel cycle. He plays the nosey neighbour who informs the police, and gets identified in the credits only as “Le dénonciateur”. Not surprisingly, this role is stilted and caricatural.
There is never much doubt where Le Havre is heading. The pleasure lies in watching each piece of the picture take its assigned place, and in Kaurismaki’s mastery of detail and atmosphere. While we assume the action is set in the present day, Marcel and his friends often seem like figures from the 1940s.
There are so many allusions in Le Havre that only film fanatics will get them all. There are nods in the direction of Charlie Chaplin, Vittorio De Sica, Marcel Carné, and especially Luis Bunuel. When Monet buys a pineapple, one thinks of Bunuel’s Nazarin (1951). When Marcel shines the shoes of two priests talking theology, they could be the chatty priests of Bunuel’s movies.
It would not be a Kaurismaki film without a rock and roll interlude, this time supplied by the unlikely figure of Little Bob, a dwarfish old rocker with a grey bouffant. When Marcel organises “a trendy charity concert” to raise money for Idrissa’s illegal passage to England, we get to hear a song, appropriately called Libero.
Le Havre is a fantasy in which everyone acts with extraordinary good will and humanity. It provides a striking contrast with the actual way refugees are treated in France, and for the most part, Australia. All the good characters cheerfully break the law, while the police, with the exception of Monet, follow orders with robotic efficiency. Kaurismaki suggests that if a policeman stopped to consult his conscience he might take a different attitude. It is easy to draw parallels with the round-up of the Jews under the Vichy régime.
A movie such as Le Havre could not be more timely. As the French elections loom, Sarko has just launched a offensive on illegal immigration to try and win back support from the parties of the far right. It seems that as soon as one leaves the enchanted world of the cinema, the politics of fear and hatred are once again top of the agenda.
Published by the Australian Financial Review, April 07, 2012
Le Havre, France, Finland, Germany, Rated PG, 93 minutes