Mixing together some of helmer Aki Kaurismaki’s favorite Gallic and Finnish thesps with a few newbies, “Le Havre” feels like a welcoming family reunion. A semi-contempo fairy tale about a shoeshine man who finds redemption helping an African stowaway in the titular Normandy harbor, pic takes place in the same retro-styled deadpan universe in which all Kaurismaki films dwell. That’s not a bad thing, especially for his fan base, and despite dark edges concerning the poor treatment of immigrants, “Le Havre” is neater and sweeter than his previous pic, “Lights in the Dusk.” Pic should ship out to the director’s usual offshore ports.
Marcel Marx (august French thesp Andre Wilms, featured in Kaurismaki’s “La Vie boheme,” “Juha” and “Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses”) shines shoes at the train station in Le Havre, a career suffering ever-decreasing returns given the rise of sneakers over leather footwear. When he and fellow shoeshine man Chang (Vietnamese actor Quoc-dung Nguyen) see one of Marcel’s clients gunned down, Marcel’s only reaction is to shrug and be thankful he got paid first.
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At home, Marcel takes for granted his wife, Arletty (Kati Outinen, whose Finnish accent is never remarked upon by anyone), a femme so devoted to her hubby she doesn’t want the doctors to tell him she’s dying, because it would upset him. Besides, miracles do happen, as she pointedly observes.
Meanwhile, down at the docks, a security guard hears a baby crying in a sealed container that originated in West Africa and was bound for Blighty, but which has been sitting on the quayside for weeks due to a computer mix-up. Rightly suspecting it will be full of smuggled souls, the authorities open it up, and are relieved to find its human cargo still alive. One preteen boy, Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), runs off; the rest are sent to various refugee camps in France where riots are taking place (seen in real news footage) to await deportation.
Idrissa crosses paths with Marcel, who takes the poor kid under his wing. Before long, the whole neighborhood is helping to keep the boy hidden from Inspector Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin, a newcomer to the Kaurismaki corps who falls perfectly in step with everyone else’s droll, morose line delivery). To raise the needed coin to pay for Idrissa’s illegal passage to London to find his mother, they persuade local aging rock legend Little Bob (a real local musician, credited here under his real name, Roberto Piazza) to give a “trendy charity concert,” providing the de rigueur rockabilly musical interlude few Kaurismaki films can do without.
It’s all rather jolly and slight, and certainly doesn’t break any new ground for the Finnish auteur, even though it foregrounds more influences than usual from French filmmakers like Marcel Carne (obvious, given the protagonists’ names), Jean-Pierre Melville, Robert Bresson and others. But on its own terms, “Le Havre” is a continual pleasure, seamlessly blending morose and merry notes with a deftness that’s up there with Kaurismaki’s best comic work.
Craft contributions from regular alumni Timo Salminen on camera and Timo Linnasalo at the editing table ensure the pic has the same glowing colors, stylized lighting and crisp pace auds have come to expect from their collaborations with Kaurismaki. It’s like listening to a band that’s been cheerfully churning it out for years, whose members all know each other’s timings inside out, not unlike onscreen performers Little Bob and his grizzled, perfectly in-sync crew.