In a year that celebrates the closed-mouth, open-eyed history of film by handing a Best Picture nomination to Michel Hazanavicius’ silent masterpiece The Artist, it seems only appropriate that we’d get another film from Finnish writer-director Aki Kaurismäki. Throughout his distinctively oddball indie film career (Leningrad Cowboys Go America, Drifting Clouds, The Match Factory Girl, The Man Without a Past), Kaurismäki has always shown a greater kinship to the silent film technicians of yesteryear than to the media-savvy moviemakers of today. His latest effort, the alternately gritty and whimsical modern fairy tale Le Havre, plays out like a politically minded remake of Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid.
Instead of Chaplin, we get longtime French actor André Wilms (Europa Europa, Monsieur Hire) as Marcel Marx, a poor but chipper fellow living in the dumpy French port city of Le Havre. Marcel puts the occasional euro in his pocket by shining shoes—at sixtysomething-years-old, it would be hard to call him a shoeshine boy, but that’s what he is. Kaurismäki’s doleful sense of humor kicks in with the film’s first shot: Marcel and his shoeshine kit, watching an endless stream of commuters disgorge from a train station—all clomping past in their tennis shoes. It’s a sequence straight out of Chaplin—or at least Jacques Tati. Despite his downtrodden circumstances, Marcel seems a happy chap, dropping by the local tavern for the occasional glass of wine and coming home each evening to his stoic but loving wife Arletty (Kati Outinen, a Kaurismäki regular).
One day Marcel stumbles across a young African boy named Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), who’s on the run from local police. Idrissa is an illegal immigrant who came into the county in a shipping container full of human cargo. Originally bound for England and hoping to reunite with his mother, Idrissa is now stuck in France with no friends, family or money. Having distinct sympathy for the underdog and a distaste for authority, aged-bohemian Marcel takes pity on the polite, well-spoken lad and hides him at his flat.
Idrissa soon becomes the pet project of Marcel’s hardscrabble little neighborhood. Shopkeepers, bakers and bar owners unite in hiding the kid and helping him find his way to England. Good thing, too, since an intrepid police inspector (Jean-Pierre Darroussin from A Very Long Engagement) is hot on Idrissa’s heels.
France is a country with a far more divisive immigration problem than even America. (We’re talking full-on riots in the streets.) Kaurismäki’s film touches on a number of these hot-button issues. Despite certain ripped-from-the-headlines details, however, the film doesn’t want to spend too much time in the real world. As a filmmaker, Kaurismäki has always had a taste for the offbeat and the artificial. He finds moments of humor in awkwardness (a police detective lugging around a pineapple) and moments of drama in overt theatricality (a pair of reunited lovers suddenly illuminated by a random spotlight). Characters spend much time staring blankly at one another. On the rare occasions when someone does speak, it’s frequently in a stilted, deadpan manner. It’s what Kaurismäki likes. This slate-faced sentimentality, combined with the colorful sets and simplistic camera compositions, makes Le Havre looks like a stylized fairy tale limned in crayon sketches.
Kaurismäki is not for all tastes. His works border on the absurdist, and his dry-as-Sauvignon Blanc sense of humor will often slip by if you aren’t paying attention. But Le Havre is one of the warmest, most accessible films on the man’s résumé—a love letter to the rewards of basic human kindness. It’s a real treat for fans and a great starting point for those who can handle a little melodramatic wishful thinking.