Le Havre: Cannes 2011 Review

Cannes Film Festival
Aki Kaurismaki carves out another comically enchanted movie oasis from the real world where people can rise to the occasion and do the right things.

A town bands together to reunite an immigrant boy with his mother in Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki's tender, enchanting tale, writes Kirk Honeycutt.

CANNES -- Competition films at Cannes can be many things but seldom would you describe them as pure pleasure. Aki Kaurismaki's Le Havre is that rare exception, harkening back to his 2002 Cannes entry, The Man Without a Past, in the pleasure department. In this film, the Finnish director is certainly dealing with a pressing issue worldwide - that of illegal migration and political, social and economic refugees. But as always he does so in the context of what he charmingly describes as an “unrealistic film.”

One wishes such a delightful film a bon voyage into the wide world of movie theaters but realistically it may play to more people in festivals than in local cinemas. A Kaurismaki film certainly will do well in several European territories but here’s hoping for good luck in North America too. After all, Kaurismaki films are nothing if not optimistic.

Early in the movie the wife of its hero learns she is gravely ill. But the doctor holds out the prospect that miracles can happen. “Not in my neighborhood,” she replies.

Ah, but there's the rub. Miracles do happen in Kaurismaki neighborhoods. It is into one such neighborhood, the narrow streets, storefront groceries and bars of the old fishermen's quarter in the French port city of Le Havre, that a young boy, a poor refugee from Africa named Idrissa [Blondin Miguel], arrives quite by accident.

A large container filled with illegal immigrants bound by ship for London is sent by computer error to Le Havre. Idrissa escapes in a comically unconvincing scene and eventually finds refuge with an aging shoe-shiner named Marcel Marx [André Wilms], who insists he once led a Bohemian life in Paris. Even though his beloved, hard-working wife Arletty [Kati Outinen] is in the hospital, Marcel hides the lad in the house he shares as well with his dog Laika.

The whole neighborhood helps protect and feed the boy although one neighbor is a snitch and police inspector Monet [Jean-Pierre Darroussin] is forever snooping around. To smuggle Idrissa to his mother in London will take serious money so Marcel decides to throw one of those “trendy charity concerts” featuring a local band.

Understand, the whole story, its characters and locales, is something of a fairy tale informed by old movies. Kaurismaki doesn’t “quote” old movies or parody then, he simply acts a though he were on a studio backlot making an old-fashioned film where working-class people can perform heroic deeds, idealism is never scorned and even a crafty cop — think of Claude Rains in Casablanca — can have a soft spot.

To gently underscore this time warp, Kaurismaki lights and films cafes, stores and car interiors as if they were fake sets. In one scene he'll show a mobile phone yet in another a rotary dial telephone. You can spot references to any number of old movie styles and filmmakers but Kaurismaki has so absorbed these into his own DNA that this fairy tale feels completely, organically his own.

The actors make this all seem so easy, so true to this unrealistic life being presented. There is no guile in any performances as everyone behaves as minor characters once did in Frank Capra films or, since this is France, perhaps Jean Renoir or René Clair films.

Wilms projects boundless optimism even as he confines his world to street corners where he is often mistreated, his favorite bar and a small house with his wife and dog. Darroussin acts as if on a mission to rid society of the bad image everyone has of cops - or at least of him. He dresses in black but his heart is otherwise. Outinen's wife lives for her husband to the point she worries about the impact her illness and possible demise will have on him, not her.

The one character who could have used a more expressive characterization is the refugee boy. Idrissa seems more a passive symbol than a flesh-and-blood boy determined to find his mother.
Kaurismaki also brings in Le Havre culture with the concert sequence as that city is a musical center in France. So an aging local rock 'n' roller named Little Bob, a.k.a., Roberto Piazza, and his band headline the fund-raiser.

This is not a film that takes sides or offers solutions to the refugee problems facing the world. All the writer-director presents is a tender, warm embrace to those who find themselves rootless. Le Havre offers them and moviegoers an enchanted port in the storm, a cinematic refuge from real life where good intentions are enough.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival, Competition
Sales: The Match Factory
Production companies: Sputnik Oy/Pyramide Productions/Pandora Films in co-production with Arte France Cinema/ZDF Arte
Cast: André Wilms, Kati Outinen, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Blondin Miguel, Elina Salo, Evelyne Didi, Quoc-Dung Nguyen
Director/screenwriter: Aki Kaurismaki
Producers: Stéphane Parthenay, Hanna Hemila
Executive producers: Fabienne Vonier, Hanna Hemila
Director of photography: Timo Salminen
Production designer: Wouter Zoon
Costume designer: Fred Cambier
Editor: Timo Linnasalo
No rating, 93 minutes