Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Jean Renoir and Jacques Tati are famous for their comic humanist films. Their films don't remind us that how hard life can be. All they are interested in is life's modest charms and fleeting beauties. Their characters say that how easy it is, in the face of cruelty, to behave decently. With overt social conscience and deadpan absurdism, prolific Finnish film-maker Aki Kaurismaki is a major inheritor of those film-makers' tradition. His latest film "Le Havre" (2011) has all the trademarks and characteristics of a Kaurismaki film -- compassionate towards the downtrodden people. If you are an avid movie lover but have never heard the name "Aki Kaurismaki" then "Le Havre" will serve as the door to access his warm-hearted fables.
"Le Havre" ("The Haven") is a titular French port city. Marcel Marx (Andre Williams) is a gentlemanly shoeshine man (in his 60s), who life with his upstanding wife Arletty (Kati Outinen) and dog named Laika in the placid town. Every day, Marcel sees the same weathered faces of cops, grocers, fisherman and barkeeps. Marcel is striving hard to make ends meet but a sudden illness takes Arletty off to the hospital (appears to be terminal cancer). The simple life is further disrupted when Marcel befriends a young Senegalese boy, Idrissa (Blondin Miguel).
The boy was discovered in a container along with a large group of African refugees. The Africans holed up in the cargo ship thought that they were going to England. Idrissa escapes from the immigration authorities and hides out at the docks. Marcel finds him and rescues him from despair. The boy yearns to see his mother, who is living in London. Despite Arletty's illness, Marcel rallies all this fisherman friends to Idrissa's aid and calls up for a "trendy charity concert" to send the boy to England. A comically sinister police inspector, Monet (Jean-Pierre Daroussin) is hell bent on catching the boy.
Director Aki Kaurismaki, himself, calls the film "unrealistic." What he means is that in this modern era, it is unrealistic to focus on the elderly and the pool and to lift up the basic goodness of these people. One of Kaurismaki's directorial traits is that, his characters are often taciturn. The actors never utter more than one sentence at a time. When Marcel asks people's assistance to help the boy, he doesn't go into a lengthy explanation and no one asks for one. Most of the characters we come across in this film are good-natured. Even the feared investigator, Monet insists that "I am ruthless toward crime, but I don't like to see the innocent suffer."
Kaurismaki's films are all old-fashioned: vinyl records, vintage dresses, celluloid film and plenty of other old-fashioned stuffs. The only cell phone we see in the movie is used by a guy with bad intentions. Although the director clings to old traditions and stuffs, his affection for the sturdy values of community is commendable. The deadpan humor exudes a quiet, warm glow of reassurance in every frame. With the pastel palette and idiosyncratic use of colors, Kaurismaki's regular cinematographer Timo Salminen transports us to the lovely port city.
If you are a cynic, you might think that the plot is too tidy. What "Le Havre" tries to show us is a simple magic -- the magic of simple human decency and its powers. This movie is something to savor, where people rise to the occasion and do the right things.
Le Havre -- IMDb