Le Havre is a hybrid film in more ways than one. Made by a Finnish director in French and set in France, it is an old-fashioned fairytale about a very timely issue, illegal immigration.
Director Aki Kaurismäki, known for his quirky films, has filmed a straightforward story here, of a young African boy who is the subject of a police manhunt and is being helped by a group of local people.
Although the local café is called La Moderne, there is nothing very modern about the anachronistic world inhabited by its characters. They drink and smoke (even in cafés and restaurants years after the practice was outlawed in France) and exhibit an Old Worldly neighborliness and courtesy. The street they live on is a favela-like row of shacks, and Le Havre couldn’t look grittier.
As in the director’s other films, the characters are mostly a charmingly odd-looking bunch that his camera just loves to look at, most notably the Finnish actress Kati Outinen, whose unusual face begins to look beautiful under its gaze. There is also a motley crew of aging-hippie and -biker café denizens who sit around arguing about whether Mont Saint-Michel is in Normandy or Brittany (a burning question in France) and what goes best with coquilles Saint Jacques. We are even treated to a performance by Little Bob, a.k.a. Roberto Piazza, a talented aging rocker from Le Havre. Kaurismäki finds the inner beauty and longing for human contact in each of them.
The exceptions to the odd looks in Le Havre are the lead characters. The handsome 64-year-old André Wilms plays Marcel Marx, a well-educated, literary, slightly larcenous type who has chosen to make his living as an itinerant shoe-shine man, a profession he considers as noble as being a shepherd. The other good-looking character is the boy, played by Blondin Miguel. who is being sheltered by Marcel and his oddball group of friends.
While the story is implausible, it has none of the sanctimonious all-downtrodden-people-are good and all-those-who-would-oppress-them-are-bad attitude found in do-gooder films like Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things (2002).
I hate to use the word “heartwarming” because it sounds sentimental, but Le Havre gets away with it precisely because of the director’s light touch, sense of humor and quirky outsider’s vision of a dilapidated French port city, filmed in all its ugliness with as much love as the characters are. It’s a delight.