MacGuffin Film Review – Le Havre

Film Review – Le Havre

A well-made film about someone selflessly helping another provides a certain distinct sense of pleasure for the viewer, which I believe comes mostly from the fact that films of this sort are usually done poorly. They slide into congratulatory territory; they try too hard to be heartwarming, and miss the point. They suggest that the viewer should immediately go out and seek their own charity case to shower neighborly love upon, whether they want it or not. Le Havre, the most recent film from Finnish filmmaker Aki Kauismäki, tackles such a story of helping a stranger with none of that treacle. Characters who are essentially good people are faced with choices, and they act in the best interest of someone who doesn’t have the means to get through his situation alone. Would that the world was a bit more like this…

In a harbor town in France, an older man called Marcel (André Willms) makes a living as a shoeshiner. Or, he makes enough money to scrape together the illusion of a living, promising the baker she’ll be paid soon; grabbing a free drink from a bartender who’s a friend. We sense that he means well, and we understand how he gets away with doing things his own way. He is a part of the fabric of the way things work in the town; these are his people.

Marcel’s wife, Arletty (Kati Outinen), keeps their simple and welcoming apartment, makes their dinners, loves Marcel. She is a good woman. But she is sick, and knows it’s more than a fleeting concern. Yet, when she has to enter the hospital for weeks of treatments, she instructs the doctors to keep Marcel in the dark as to how serious things are. She wants to spare him for as long as possible.

Arletty’s hospital stay coincides with another remarkable event in Marcel’s life. One day while sitting on the steps by the water, he sees a young African boy in up to his waist, hiding under the dock. The boy is Idrissa (Blondin Miguel, perfect in his first film role), who slipped past the police when they discovered a shipping container filled with refugees. An Inspector (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), mustache and black trench coat providing the typical movie signal of someone who should not be trusted, questions Marcel, who lies and says he has not seen the boy. This lie leads to Marcel enlisting his network of friends in helping Idrissa in his quest to get to London and reunite with his mother.

The story is simple but timeless. How many times in history have people had to choose whether or not to put themselves on the line to help refugees for whom getting from one place to another is the key to a better life, or even the difference between life and death? It happens every day, and I love how the topic is addressed here. Marcel assumes immediately that his friends and neighbors will help him. We don’t have to sit through any waffling over whether helping the boy is the right thing to do; we don’t have to listen to any rousing speeches about rising to the occasion, about how if it was your child you’d want someone else to help them. What needs to be done is done.

This level tone and sense of goodness is enhanced by the visual style employed by Kauismäki. We get many static or slow moving shots that are essentially lovely tableaux of town life. Bold colors signify the warmth at play in so many of the characters’ interactions. And even in moments of tension, Kauismäki doesn’t need a faster pace to bring out this emotion in the viewer. It’s innate in the storytelling. All of this gets support from subtle but pitch perfect acting on the parts of the main players, particularly Wilms as Marcel and Darroussin as his reluctant nemesis the Inspector.

My one small issue with the film is with its ending—not so much what happens, but the way it happens, pushing the tone of the film just a bit past believability. It would give away too much to elaborate, but it’s the only reason my grade for the film took a small hit. Believing that life could really take these turns is the most important thing about the experience of watching this film.

Le Havre is Finland’s official submission for Best Foreign Language Film for this year’s Oscars, and watching it was my first experience with the accomplished writer/director Kauismäki. I often like to specify in reviews whether or not the film was good or interesting enough to make me want to actively seek out other work from those involved. I say yes, surely, here; it is time for me to remedy my ignorance in regards to his body of work.

It is fitting that the title of the film comes from the name of the town in which it takes place. This encompasses both the setting and the people in it, things that make up a state of being we could certainly use more of in reality. Le Havre is a haven, as its name communicates, for a person who needs it, and Le Havre is itself a haven for moviegoers who are being asked to see the dreckfest Jack & Jill this weekend. The film begins its run in Seattle today, at SIFF Cinema at the Uptown.

Final Grade: A-

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