The 2011 film Le Havre tells the beautiful tale of implacable ageing shoe-shiner Marcel Marx (the late André Wilms), who goes out of his way to help immigrant boy Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) evade the authorities to be reunited with his mother. With French dialogue, and set in the Normandy port town of Le Havre, the movie is nevertheless written and directed by Aki Kaurismäki, widely considered to be Finland’s most prominent director. The dialogue is minimal and straightforward: I could understand most of it without subtitles.
When a container ship arrives in Le Havre from Gabon with refugees aboard, Idrissa, a young boy who had been aiming for London, is the only one to flee the immigration authorities. Marcel, who lives a modest, working-class life with his attentive wife and dog Laika (sharing a name with the famous Soviet space dog), comes across the boy by chance during a lunch break, and is immediately sympathetic. Marcel’s wife Arletty (Kati Outinen) becomes seriously ill around this time and is admitted to hospital, and Marcel allows the boy to live with him temporarily, while continuing to evade the Clouseau-esque Detective Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin).
The local people – Jean-Paul the grocer, Yvette at the bakery, and the patrons at the local bar – are unreserved in welcoming Idrissa (although they haven’t always had time for the hard-up Marcel, who has a reputation for being late in settling bills). They donate food and help deflect the authorities, eventually clubbing together to arrange a charity concert to raise money for Idrissa to cross the channel to his mother.
There are serious themes, but the film is low-key, warm, and quietly witty, with the set tinged in blue throughout. With its goodies and baddies, and an optimistic storyline focused around the fates of Idrissa and Arletty, it has a sometimes childlike feel, a sort of humanist fairy tale.
Le Havre deals with African immigration, and questions of legal status and citizenship, big issues in contemporary Europe, but instead of pontificating, Kaurismäki explores them stylistically. Ultimately, Le Havre is heart-warming and Utopian, wearing its liberal politics lightly and, in defiance of logic and indeed medical science, things turn out positively all round.