In European film, the subject of refugees hasn’t been tackled to any real degree; perhaps it’s because there’s no easy answer to the ever pressing, ever real problem of asylum seekers. But last year, and now receiving a UK release, the Finnish director of The Man Without a Past (2002) and Lights in the Dusk (2006) turned his eye to the very topic of illegal immigration. Le Havre depicts the mundane but content life of Marcel (Wilms) in his sleepy eponymous home town, a shoe-shiner saving up cents with his devoted wife Arletty (Outinen). Upon chance, Marcel meets a young African boy by the name of Idrissa (Miguel) who’s accidentally illegally immigrated to Le Havre en route to London, and subsequently on the run from the law. Marcel takes him in, and with his wife in hospital gravely ill, works toward reuniting the boy with his mother in England.
From the off Le Havre doesn’t subscribe to a particular genre or ideal. It effectively just lets Marcel’s noble campaign speak for itself; this concentration on decisions and actions made by the people inhabiting Kaurismäki’s world means that the characters are always in the spotlight, exchanging glances, smiles, and frowns with his typical blend of pathos and humour. At the start, it’s ambiguous as to what decade it’s set in – pastel hues and retro fashion sense give the sly impression of a seventies backdrop, spearheaded by Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), chief inspector of the immigrant search, and his near-cartoonised get-up of a Pink Panther detective. But once we see a few Euros being passed around, we know it’s firmly set in more modern times. It’s this lopsided view of society that gives Le Havre its timely edge; what occurs during it could happen anywhere, and at any time.
An impelling screenplay keeps the momentum of the main narrative chugging along at a perfect pace. Marcel’s increasingly brave police-dodging deeds are probably the highlight of the writing; a fluent balance of great physical humour and genuine emotional stakes give blood to what could be a very static character study in lesser hands. Along with the on-the-head dialogue and a sure-handed use of standard tropes (the sub plot of Arletty’s illness in hospital the main example), Le Havre is also a slice of smart cinematographic craft. Its bright tones and economic framing make it feel at times like a British sitcom – in a good way, and that direction of tone feels right for the duration.
But this film would be nothing without its cast. Le Havre is led almost hand-in-hand by Wilms’ and Miguel’s central performances; the latter gives the little refugee a superb deadpan expression, never revealing itself to be entirely comic or serious, which is what essentially seems to be the morality of the entire movie. Wilms is excellent as Marcel, the craggy-faced old-timer who almost seems to revel in his romantic, rebellious actions – which, we learn, is probably what he’s been like his entire life from his tense verbal tête-à-têtes with inspector Monet over the fate of the little boy.
Despite all these positives, the film fails slightly with giving Marcel no concrete motivation. Already exposed to the tribulations of immigration himself, Marcel has plenty to be apprehensive about – but he never seems to care about Idrissa on a personal scale, only in the sense of a larger community. Whether Kaurismäki meant it or not, there is a clear lack of forging a relationship between the two in the writing; there are the dramatically mandatory instances of Marcel initially welcoming the boy into his home, bringing him food to break down borders between them, and shouting at him when the boy disobeys him – but there is no unique common ground they share to build a truly gripping bond, with the exception of their immigration woes. But surprisingly, it isn’t too much of a shortfall as the entire community captivatingly comes together to help Idrissa in his plight; the ardent solidarity of the grocers, bakers and bartenders of the sleepy fishing town is heroic, and many times moving – though an extended cameo from French rock n’ roll singer Little Bob, playing a charity concert for Idrissa, is grating. It’s as if Kaurismäki invited his friends over to the set for a party in the middle of shooting – it serves no purpose to the overall story.
Ill-timed rock concerts aside, the Finnish director has crafted a humane, touching portrait of a tough subject; no easy answers are given, yet at the same time no real questions are asked – only whether this brave young boy will make it or not. Which is smart of Kaurismäki, in hindsight; instead of riffing on endless different construations of the same difficult issue, he portrays someone living through it all and what that means for them personally. The eye for the inner turmoils wider social ‘issues’ generate is Le Havre‘s real success.