Runtime: 93 minutes
I started off my experience at this year's Toronto International Film Festival with Aki Kaurismäki's "Le Havre", a rather obscure, small production that was competing for the Palme d'Or at Cannes (it was Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" that was the big winner). The question is: Did I start off on the right foot? Read on to find out...
"Le Havre" centers on an elderly, working-class shoe shiner named Marcel Marx (played by André Wilms), living with his loving wife Arletty (Kati Outinen) in the French port city of... Le Havre. Although his profession only leaves him with enough money to get by, he never gives up hope and always finds great joy and warmth in all the people in his life-- be it his friendly, selfless, next-door neighbor or the kind owner of the local bar. Marcel's life takes a bit of a turn when he must send his ill wife to the hospital, hoping she will get better soon. But that's not it-- soon after, when he finds himself alone, eating a sandwich at the harbor, he discovers a young African boy named Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) hiding in the water. Marcel befriends him and learns that he had been hiding with many other illegal immigrants in a shipping container, with hopes of arriving in London to meet up with his aunt. The old man voluntarily goes out of his way to keep him away from authorities and completely out of sight, but soon, this situation quickly transforms into a cat-and-mouse game, lead by the persistent, intimidating, wolf-like police inspector Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin).
With its simplistic plot, clearly defined characters, and inviting setting, this film has all the qualities and characteristics of a great short film-- if you don't count its feature-length runtime. Is this a bad thing? Hardly! I find that this makes the film all the more absorbing and enjoyable, though slow in progression at times and thus able to make your average modern-day moviegoer lose interest. But I still believe that sometimes, it's nice to just sit down and follow a naturally flowing, straightforward story, when most of the movies you see today are flashy and overly stimulating to the point where they bore you. "Le Havre" is something refreshingly different, for a change.
Rarely do films combine comedy with drama in such a natural, uncontrived way. With this film, Aki Kaurismäki proves to be one of the few working directors able to pull off a mixture of dark, ironic, and deadpan humor while maintaining the same upbeat, cheerful, and optimistic tone throughout the entire film. A great example of this guy's exemplary sense of humor is the opening scene of the film, where we see Marcel going around with his shoe shining materials, looking for a paying customer. He finally lucks out when he approaches a suspicious looking type holding a suitcase in his hand. As he shines this man's shoes, we see two other mysterious figures watching from a distance. It's clear that something's up. When Marcel finishes his job, the man pays him and quickly tries to escape. But it's too late; we hear gunshots, a tire squeal, and a scream as the camera lingers on Marcel, whose facial expression remains pleasant. He simply says: "Luckily he had time to pay.". Of course, since it's more of a visual gag, it's much funnier when you see it for yourself. Having said that, there's no denying that this film has very smart comedic elements.
Although this film is Finnish, it's obvious that it's shot on location in France. I was breathless as I got to admire the beauty of the ocean and the quaint coziness of the old city buildings. Sadly, this is the closest I've ever gotten to visiting France! No wonder these sights took me away.
In sum, Aki Kaurismäki's "Le Havre" is a simple, human tale that remains light and pleasant while brushing on topics of illegal immigration and the illness of a loved-one. It's a soulful film that mixes smart humor with true emotion, without ever feeling artificial. I recommend looking for this hidden gem. You might just like it.
Three stars out of four.