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Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre is so simply and utopically rendered, a lot of critics have described it as a modern-day fairy tale. I call bullshit. Bullshit on its motivationless lead character. Bullshit on his priorities, like going out of his way for a stranger while a loved one ails. Bullshit on the “deadpan” acting, which results in a dog (reportedly Kaurismäki’s own) being more expressive than a child. None of this is magical. It’s lazy.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Finnish writer-director’s French-language story centers on Marcel (Andre Wilms), a 70ish shoe-shiner who’s barely making a living in the port city of Le Havre. One thing he does have going for him is a very dry sense of humor: At the beginning of the film, he buffs a sparkle out of the footwear of a gangster, who then very quickly meets an untimely end. “At least he had time to pay,” Marcel tells a colleague.
Marcel’s life consists of being told by authorities to scoot along, having a drink or two at a local dive, and coming home to his wife, Arletty (Kaurismäki regular Kati Outinen), who’s given such naturalistic dialogue as “I’ll prepare the dinner.” But then two things upend his world: Arletty has to be rushed to the hospital and kept there for stomach pains, and a group of African refugees is found in a shipping container headed for London. A boy, Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), escapes, and Marcel happens upon him while he’s eating lunch one day. The police show up, which keeps Marcel from sharing his food. But he surreptitiously leaves a sandwich for Idrissa later on. Then Marcel happens to find him sleeping in his shed. What a coincidence!
Marcel decides to help the boy, though his reasons are question marks. More egregiously, he journeys to find members of Idrissa’s extended family with the hope that they can reunite him with his mother in London. Meanwhile, Arletty is lying in the hospital while her friends read her Kafka. (OK, that’s kind of funny, too.)
As you’d expect, Idrissa is less than effusive given the ordeal he’s survived. But in Kaurismäki’s hands the character emerges as a total dope, staring wordlessly at strangers with a long face and venturing out in public when Marcel’s not around, even though he knows the cops, including a particularly dogged one played Jean-Pierre Darroussin, are looking to deport him. Marcel’s pooch has more personality, and apparently more smarts to boot.
There’s not much beyond Le Havre’s man-helps-boy plot. The story has two endings that, no spoiler alert here, you might consider pretty fairy-tale; neither is particularly believable, though one may help swell your Grinch heart. It’s still bullshit, but it’s just about as touching as bullshit can get.