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Review: Le Havre

Le Havre (PG)

dir: Aki Kaurismäki
Should you be looking for one image from Le Havre to sum up the sensibility of the Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki, you could do worse than an interior shot of the hero’s poky house. The living room is decked out in colours to which the director could reasonably add his own name, à la Yves Klein: despondent blue-grey, sickly mustard yellow, the diseased green of pea soup. Lukewarm pea soup, that is, made from frozen peas in a prison kitchen. 
On the wall is a framed painting of a window opening on to a tranquil and inviting sea. This combination of the dingy and the dreamy, with the stylised grimness of the room offset by the yearning of the seascape, characterises the kind of dry comedies that Kaurismäki has been turning out every four or five years since the mid-1980s. No one else has made the deadpan so life-affirming.
Le Havre is his most exuberantly optimistic film yet. Marcel (André Wilms, who played the character in his Bohemian days in Kaurismäki’s 1992 film La Vie de bohème) is an ageing shoeshine in the French port town of the title. His doting wife, Arletty (Kati Outinen), is admitted one night to hospital. When the doctor brings her the bad news, the worst news, Arletty begs him not to tell Marcel – he’s just a big child, she explains. (The doctor agrees to fudge the issue: “I’ll talk like a politician,” he says.)
Marcel has enough on his plate. African immigrants have been discovered in a shipping container in the port; one of them, a young boy named Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), has fled the police’s clutches and stumbled into Marcel’s life. Idrissa doesn’t say much but neither does Marcel. Both have a penchant for gazing wistfully out to sea. They’re a good match.
Another film-maker might have spotted in this story an odd-couple dynamic – grumpy old man confronts his prejudices by harbouring a desperate immigrant, that kind of thing. Except Marcel isn’t grumpy, despite the misfortune in his life, and nor is he prejudiced. He sees that help is required and he provides it. He tracks down Idrissa’s grandfather in a detention centre and learns that the boy is heading to meet his mother in London. 
With his business failing and his wife convalescing, Marcel devotes his days to guaranteeing Idrissa’s wellbeing. The neighbours snap into action; a shopkeeper who once yanked down the shutters whenever he saw Marcel approach now gives him trays of food. Would a charity concert to raise money for Idrissa’s safe passage be far-fetched? Yes, but it works. Even a frowning police inspector snooping around town is no match for such altruism.
The outpouring of goodwill is all the more delightful set against Kaurismäki’s retro aesthetic, which is like film noir spliced with The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. The lighting is vividly theatrical, picking characters out of the shadows, or bestowing upon Marcel’s dog, Laika (a Kaurismäki regular), a flattering spotlight during a visit to the neighbourhood bar. The sets look both freshly painted and dilapidated.
Perhaps it’s Kaurismäki’s absurdist humour that has prevented the political significance of his films, steeped as they are in economic realities, from being appreciated properly. Or maybe their hopeful overtones have disqualified them from serious consideration, with darkness or pessimism in art still frustratingly synonymous with depth. 
The fact that Marcel’s family name is Marx, or that Arletty’s friends bring Kafka to her hospital bedside rather than Reader’s Digest, probably won’t change that. This is a film concerned unfashionably with miracles: when Arletty declares that they don’t happen in her neighbourhood, the film sets out to prove her wrong and also to demonstrate that the miraculous can be human in origin as well as divine.
If Le Havre feels like the most modern of Kaurismäki’s pictures, it must be because of the torn-from-the-headlines plot (alerted to the immigrants’ arrival, the local paper starts whimpering about al-Qaeda). But the film’s pleasures are as timeless as they are numerous, from a soundtrack that blends street-corner accordions and twanging ballads with “Apache” guitars, to the director’s palpable and long-standing affection for his actors. Their crumpled, weather-beaten faces exude what screenwriting gurus call “back story” and the rest of us know as life.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue