Marcel Marx (André Wilms), a former author and evident bohemian, has retreated into a voluntary exile in the port city of Le Havre and has become a shoe-shiner, to reach a closer rapport with people. He lives happily within the triangle of his favourite bar, his work, and his beloved wife Arletty (Kati Outinen), who falls seriously ill. Marx's life takes an interesting turn when fate throws Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) in his path, an underage refugee from Africa, sought by the police.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Le Havre could be described as the ever-quirky Aki Kaurismaki's 'wish list' film addressing today's tide of refugees who are usually faceless crowds or worse, corpses at the unintended end of their journey. Like Philippe Lioret's Welcome (2009) set in adjoining Calais, Le Havre picks out one face from the crowd of refugees caught in the security net on the French side of the English Channel, on their way to London. (But the endings are totally different.)
Also like Welcome, Kaurismaki imagines that this lone youngster finds a sympathetic local who offers him shelter and safety. Both films succeed in humanising 'refugees' as actual people with a face and eyes - eyes that we catch in the camera's gaze. In that sense, both are political films.
This story is an example of how the filmmakers would like us all to respond to refugees on a universal scale, but admits in his notes to the film that it's unrealistic. Take in and shelter a refugee today, sort of thing.
Marcel Marx (André Wilms), the shoeshiner (apparently a retired writer but there's no hint of this on screen) living in a humble shack, is Kaurismaki's working class humanitarian hero, his name a politically charged tag in a post-Marxist world. But Kaurismaki isn't totally devoid of hope: he has cast the calmly affable and decent-faced Jean-Pierre Daroussin as the local police inspector whose self-confessed dislike of people is more a front than a reality, if one is judged by one's actions.
The film was a big success as a Competition entry at Cannes (2011), where the unpleasantness of the French authorities is as unpopular as it is politically divisive, and won the international film critics' main prize. My favourite Kaurismaki film is The Man Without A Past (2002), a dry, whimsical yet deeply humane film with a haunting mood, and the singular oddity of his Finnish sensibilities on full display. Le Havre has a similar mood, but I get a sense that making it in French has stiffened some of the sinews of the screenplay and some moments of the performances.
I hasten to add that the cast deliver a rich and varied set of characters, all robustly real and economical in their creation. It's a challenging film on some levels - its rhythms and cinematic language unlike most films released in Australia - and yet it bores into the psyche with its simple yet effective drama. We also have to forgive Kaurismaki his one major indulgence, when at the end of the film, Marx goes to visit his gravely ill wife in hospital. But then Kaurismaki is like us all, conflicted and at best hopeful about the state of the world and its inhabitants.
Review by Louise Keller:
There's something extremely pure about this simple yet beautiful film in which ordinary people do extraordinary things. Those who are familiar with Aki Kaurismäki's filmmaking style (who can forget his Oscar-nominated 2002 film, The Man Without a Past?), will have a pretty good idea of how effectively the writer director can tell a story with imagery and minimal dialogue. Here, the protagonist is an elderly shoe-shine man, who finds something eminently more rewarding than shoes to polish. With its uncluttered storytelling, haunting scenarios and memorable characters, this is a gem of a film with a boat-load of heart.
The skill of Kaurismäki lies in his ability to recount a story and omit anything that is superfluous. The film's title of Le Havre announces the story's setting and we get a glimpse of the leisurely French port where life goes on as usual for the locals as illegal immigrants arrive in ship containers. The story concerns a young African immigrant, Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), who escapes from officials and finds a sympathetic soul in Marcel Marx (André Wilms), a good-hearted man. Arletty (Kati Outinen), Marcel's conscientious, caring wife is so considerate that she insists the doctors don't tell her husband her medical condition is hopeless, in case it upsets him. When the doctor says that miracles do happen and Arletty matter-of-factly replies 'Not in my neighbourhood', there is not an ounce of self pity in her voice.
By the time we meet Idrissa, a sweet-faced youth with a polite manner, we have already met all the locals, who know each other well and look out for each other. Their attitudes to life are shown often with comic results. When they notice that Marcel has taken in the young boy, they all contribute to his food and well being. Of course it doesn't take long for the police to get wind of it and the local crime investigator, Inspector Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) starts hanging around and asking questions.
There are many unforgettable scenes like the exchange between Monet and the local café owner, when profound words are exchanged over a glass of calvados. Another is the moment when a truce is called between rock star Little Bob (Roberto Piazza) and his Mimie (Myriam 'Mimie' Piazza), who he considers to be 'the road manager of his soul', when not a word is spoken. I like the simplicity of the sentiment in the scene in the hospital, in which Idrissa and Arletty shake hands and wish each other 'Bonne chance'.
The melancholy sound of the piano accordion echoes throughout the film and Kaurismäki injects a palpable mood. This is a film for the true film lover and one that will make the world just that little bit brighter.
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LE HAVRE (PG)
CAST: André Wilms, Jean-Pierre Daroussin, Kati Outinen, Blondin Miguel, Jean-Pierre Léaud
PRODUCER: Aki Kaurismaki
DIRECTOR: Aki Kaurismaki
SCRIPT: Aki Kaurismaki
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Timo Salminen
EDITOR: Timo Linnasalo
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Wouter Zoon
RUNNING TIME: 93 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Sharmill Films
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: March 29, 2012
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