A crotchety old man. A wide-eyed youngster. These stories write themselves, and judging from the overwhelmingly sappy movies they often become, you wonder how true that statement is. But Le Havre wasn’t cranked out by a diabolical screenwriting robot but by Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki, whose The Man Without a Past let viewers know that he’s not about to share a traditional-sounding narrative without a quirky streak. Le Havre isn’t quite as overtly oddball, but thanks to its wry, understated style, its message is delivered with greater sincerity than its Hollywoodized counterparts.
A self-professed Bohemian once upon a time, Marcel Marx (Andre Wilms) is now spending his twilight years as a shoe shiner in the portside hamlet of Le Havre. Supporting his wife (Kati Outinen) and himself on spare change and whatever food he can mooch off the neighbors, Marcel leads an unremarkable life that’s soon changed in two big ways. After his spouse checks into the hospital for an illness she’d rather keep secret, a wayward freighter carrying African immigrants docks in town. One little boy (Blondin Miguel) escapes the authorities and crosses paths with Marcel, who, after sheltering the kid, inspires his fellow townsfolk to pitch in and see that the little dude is reunited with his family.
What struck me about Le Havre is about how showy it wasn’t. We’ve all seen those melodramas that cram every frame with emotional outbursts and tearful reunions that, for the most part, don’t ring very true for me. Kaurismäki knows that yelling about how warm and fuzzy you are is no replacement for actually being warm and fuzzy, and the unhurried pace at which he tells his story reflects that. But the beauty of Le Havre is that this approach coincides perfectly with what the film is all about — that doing a complete stranger a kindness is so easy. No blubbering or moral contemplation necessary; sometimes, you just have to do the nice thing.
With no dramatic bullet points or a devotion to stick to them, Le Havre is free to let loose with those humorously droll touches for which Kaurismäki is beloved. Nothing really amounts to more than a nice chuckle, but the world Kaurismäki lays out before us is all the more interesting because of the slightly off-kilter lives his characters lead. It’s an ensemble that contains elderly rockers with sweet pompadours and Vietnamese immigrants pretending to be Chinese, each performance given with affection and led brilliantly by Wilms. Imperfect but with a good heart, Marcel is a scoundrel you’d want on your side, and that Wilms never condescends for your sympathy is a testament to the fantastic acting he brings to the table.
Le Havre is the type of movie where the bad guys are only bad guys just so they can wear those cool old trenchcoats. It gives you the impression of being halfway between Jim Jarmusch and Napoleon Dynamite, deadpan and random but with an underlying sweetness to which you immediately respond. Though not a life-altering inspirational fable for our times, Le Havre is still perfect to pop in whenever a grey day sneaks up.