Finnish writer-director Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre tells a simple story about one person’s compassion for a total stranger. A cargo container at France’s Port of Le Havre is discovered to be housing numerous African immigrants, among them a young boy. The boy, named Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), befriends Marcel (André Wilms), an aging shoe shiner whose wife is gravely ill. Distraught and disoriented over his wife’s hospitalization and uncertain prognosis, Marcel makes Idrissa’s safety and protection his personal mission.
The Criterion Collection has issued this gentle 2011 “fairy tale” (as Kaurismäki calls his film in an interview) as a two-DVD set. Despite the potentially heavy themes of terminal illness and illegal immigration, Le Havre is consistently light and whimsical in tone. This isn’t really a political film. There is no serious examination of the various arguments surrounding immigration. Instead it’s a casual (and occasionally quite funny) slice of life about a rather bumbling man who, in the autumn of his life, attempts something more generous than perhaps he has ever done before.
The charmingly deadpan performances are a genuine asset here, led by Wilms’ kindhearted, bewildered senior citizen. It’s a little hard not to like the guy, even as we see him initially taking his long-suffering wife, Arletty (Kati Outinen), for granted prior to her falling ill. His loyal friend and fellow shiner, Chang (Quoc Dung Nguyen), helps him understand the predicament of the hard-working immigrant living under an assumed identity. “I don’t exist,” Chang tells Marcel, strengthening the older man’s resolve to save Idrissa from deportation. As Idrissa, Miguel scores points by underacting. The boy is polite and grateful for Marcel’s assistance, and Miguel portrays this with sympathetic dignity.
Jean-Pierre Darroussin plays the adversarial role, bringing a quiet complexity to the role of police detective Monet, who is trying to apprehend the runaway immigrant child. His recurring presence throughout the film adds a mild sense of foreboding, though not enough to detract from the generally cheery atmosphere. Back to Kaurismäki’s comment that his film is a “fairy tale,” it’s clear he wasn’t striving for gritty realism here. Le Havre is the story of a man who has chosen to deal with his mid-life crisis—having no career to speak of and mundane daily routine—rather late, but better late than never.