Great Humanist Film for March

Most reviewers of Le Havre, the Finnish film which Filmworks will show on March 9, call it something like sentimental, unreal, or impossibly optimistic, as if these are objectionable qualities in a motion picture. Yet everyone likes this film—they see it as plausibly hopeful. The word “heart” occurs in many of these reviews. Few fault Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki for not holding to realism. He makes cheerfulness believable and entertaining. Le Havre is a kind of “Hollywood” film set in Europe so don’t fault yourself if you “feel good” after seeing it. Kaurismaki wants you to feel good.

After all, it’s a big world out there. Many things might happen. Writers can direct plots one way or another. Kaurismaki, who wrote the film, simply believes in upbeat, and so will you. Kaurismaki’s optimism reminds us that many life events do resolve happily, that people are capable of generosity, and adversity is a defeatable adversary.

The story is about a boy from Africa who stows away in a container on a freighter actually bound for London but which ends up in Le Havre on the coast of Normandy. In fact, the container holds dozens of “illegals” who should have been dumped in England, not Normandy. A local shoeshine man, who goes by the delicious name of Marcel Marx (André Wilms) observes the boy Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) originally from Gabon trying to avoid the French immigration cops, and decides to lend a hand. This is the basic premise: a likeable man (though he owes money to many people) doing good will to a kid in trouble.

Such a premise is probably doomed to failure in the hands of a lesser director, but as so many reviewers have noted, Kaurismaki is a master of understatement and offhandedness. The film avoids maudlin. It is more concerned with the life of the port and people who work there—the small merchants, the grocers, the tobacconists, laborers and dock workers, who wink at the law and have more compassion for the pursued than with respect for officialdom.

Marx is an ex-bohemian—or maybe not even “ex.” He shines shoes for a living. He is not a young man. He remembers being on the run himself earlier in life, hunted, often despised and alone. In fact, much of the Le Havre seasidecommunity is culturally alternative. The film evokes silent comedy when Chaplin and Keaton made fools out of cops.

Le Havre is on many ten best lists, including Film Comment’s list of the best films of 2011. As Marjorie Baumgarten of the Austen Chronicle has written, “Le Havre has no interest in the intricacies of illegal workers and immigration. The film is really a story about community and how it unites for something it deems important. But more, it is a story about mood and tone. Kaurismäki’s mordant humor – part verbal, part visual – remains intact.”

Some bouquets:

  • “Buster Keaton isn’t dead, he’s alive and well in Finland … If the name Aki Kaurismäki doesn’t mean anything to you, it should, and Le Havre may be the film to make it happen
”Grade: A!”—Kenneth Turan, The Los Angeles Times
  • “A perfect, deadpan, impishly optimistic fairy tale.”—Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly
  • “A stylized and sentimental fairy tale about the way the world might be … Aki Kaurismäki has become a major inheritor of the comic-humanist tradition of Charlie Chaplin, Jean Renoir and Jacques Tati.”
- A.O. Scott, The New York Times
  • “Four stars! There is nothing cynical or cheap about it, it tells a good story with clear eyes and a level gaze, and it just plain makes you feel good.”
- Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-Times