Friday, November 4, 2011

Le Havre: A Funny Film that Celebrates Harboring the Helpless

Blondin Miguel as Idrissa in Le Havre

Don’t expect to see Scandinavian musicians with extremely pointy shoes and hairstyles. The wacky characters in Aki Kaurismaki’s Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989) do not appear in Le Havre, an equally deadpan new film by the Finnish writer-director that has much more of a beating heart. He sets this one in the French port city, where an occasional cell phone is the rare hint of modernity in an otherwise thoroughly convincing early 1950s ambiance. This version of the seaside Normandy town is populated by a quaint citizenry whose clothing, homes, shops and cars are very mid-20th century. In a working-class neighborhood, their normally sedate existence becomes less so due to an issue that has exploded in the 21st-century: undocumented immigrants. These days in America, they’re often dismissively referred to merely as “illegals.”

With In This World (2002), Michael Winterbottom was among the first filmmakers in recent decades to address the plight of refugees in a compassionate way. That docudrama concerned young men from Afghanistan making their way across an often hostile Europe in hopes of a better future than is possible back home. Le Havre centers on an adolescent boy named Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) from Gabon who escapes when police discover a huddled mass of Africans in a shipping container on the docks. He’s later spotted hidden in the shallow water behind wooden pilings by Marcel (Andre Wilms), a local man with a marginal career shining shoes in an era of Nikes – along with cell phones, another 2011 touch. Ditto for sensationalist newspaper headlines that suggest the fugitive lad being hunted by cops could be linked to al-Qaeda.

Marcel intuits that Idrissa is simply a scared, hungry kid. He shelters him in his modest house and tries to figure out what to do next. The proprietors of nearby small businesses help out. The grocer (Francois Monnie), the baker Yvette (Evelyne Didi) and tavern owner Claire (Elina Salo) all share in the secret, thwarting a snitch (Jean-Pierre Leaud) and a relentless investigation by Inspector Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin). Because this is a Kaurismaki production, the many absurdist elements include le flic walking into the bar at one point holding a pineapple. There’s a plot-driven reason for the fruit prop but it’s wonderfully contrived to provide comic dissonance.

Pierre Etaix and Kati Outinen in Le Havre
Marcel, who was an impoverished Parisian playwright in Kaurismaki’s La Vie de Boheme (1992), now dwells in Le Havre with his plaintive wife Arletty (Kati Outinen) and their adorable dog Laika (Kaurismaki’s Laika, who has starred in his previous ventures). By the time Idrissa moves in, Arletty has been hospitalized for an unspecified but potentially terminal disease. At her bedside, friends Yvette and Claire read passages out loud from Kafka. These folks are not averse to downbeat literature in a society where the downtrodden must band together to survive. A shoe-shine colleague, Chang (Quoc Dung Nguyen), also pitches in to protect Idrissa from deportation. He can be smuggled by boat to London, where some of his relatives have already settled, if the group comes up with enough funds. To do this, they arrange a pop concert featuring Little Bob (Roberto Piazza), a diminutive Elvis wannabe every bit as crazy as the Leningrad Cowboys.

Le Havre is a showcase for an array of genuinely quirky people and progressive ideas. The family name of Marcel and Arletty? Marx. But Kaurismaki is not a polemicist. He has said: “I think the more pessimistic I feel about life, the more optimistic my films should be.” Optimistic, yes, though with a droll soup├žon of weather-beaten realism. Realism is somewhat of an exaggeration, of course, given the vintage patina overlaid on a contemporary city (courtesy of cinematographer Timo Salminen and set designer Wouter Zoon). The outlook is probably more that of an enigmatic and melancholy fairytale.

“Maybe my films are not masterpieces,” the auteur has noted, “but they are documents of their time. That’s enough for me.” Nonetheless, he could well have turned out a mini-masterpiece – it earned a top prize at Cannes this year that plays with the notion of time. The word “havre” means harbor but a second definition is “haven.” The movie’s safe haven demimonde swinging into action on behalf of a lost black child sums up the sort of compassion so lacking in the current debate about “illegals.” To paraphrase an old English idiom, bless their pointy little heads.

Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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