Cannes 2011 Review – Le Havre

Arguably the best-received film of the fest so far, Aki Kaurismäki’s latest, Le Havre, is also one of the smallest films in competition. Wedged in between directors tackling grand subjects on an even grander scale (Malick and Von Trier, although I would argue the latter just has the scale part down), Kaurismäki succesfully keeps it simple.

Shoeshiner Marcel Marx (André Wilms) leads a modest life with his wife (Kati Outinen) in the fishermen’s quarter of the French harbor town of Le Havre. He roams the streets, he drinks his wine at his café, he comes home to his wife, and the days go by. Then two things happen that shake up his world: his wife has to go to the hospital with a potentially terminal illness, and he meets Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), a young African refugee boy who arrived in Le Havre locked in a container with his grandfather, among many others, and who escaped upon the opening of said container. Marcel takes pity on the boy, first helping him with food, then lodging, and, by enlisting some friends in his community, hiding the boy from the police. In the meantime, he tries to gather more information on Idrissa’s mother and her whereabouts in London, in order to help Idrissa cross over to England and reunite with her.

Even while Kaurismäki takes on interesting subjects such as immigration, sense of community, and the loss of a loved one, Le Havre never feels like it is a film that wants to preach its message. Kaurismäki himself had acknowledged that he does not have an answer to the problems of many political and economic refugees coming to Europe, whose situation is ever worsening in a part of the world that has in general moved more to the right of the political spectrum in recent years. Ever a melancholic optimist, the Finnish director has not lost faith in people’s sense of brotherhood, showing a community willing to help people in need, willing to defy conservative authority. The production design and musical selection (apart from a baffling live performance, even though it fits within the story) evoke the nostalgic ’50s, a time when this sense of brotherhood was stronger (or at least is so in our collective minds). Many of the references to people like Carné, Tati and Melville also hark back to the same era.

Kaurismäki’s distinct style fits the scope of his story and the town he has set it in: through his trademark style of creating small tableaux with impeccable framing and mise-en-scène, his somewhat absurdist sense of humor, and the humanity of his characters, he manages to give the film a sense of intimacy, of warmth and optimism that has been missing from most other entries in the festival. Which might just be the reason it’s faring so well in the polls so far. There is a certain (intended) artificiality to the acting, which adds to the slightly off feeling of the film, but especially André Wilms and Jean-Pierre Darroussin in their respective roles of Marcel and Monet (the one police inspector who’d rather see the boy escape to London instead of ending up in a Le Havre jail) acquit themselves very well and are a natural fit to Kaurismäki’s world.