Cannes (Official Selection) – It flew under the judges' radar in Cannes and had neither controversy nor sex symbols on the red carpet to grab headlines but Le Havre is the hidden gem of the main competition, says Emma Rowley. No surprise, as it represented Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki's fourth nomination for the Palme D'Or.
In the critics' round-up in the back of Screen Daily, which is given out free on the Croisette, and which makes handy reading and fanning material for the long, hot queues, Le Havre led the pack in ratings for most of the festival's duration. It didn't make a big splash but among festival-goers, it was one of the most talked-about and admired films in competition. It's a film you'd have to be a miserable git not to enjoy: beautifully shot, winningly acted and scripted with a wry humour.
That's all the more rare for a film that deals with such serious subject matter: an illegal child refugee winds up in a poor community in an ugly industrial port, hiding from the police. But then Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki has an unusual approach to filmmaking, one of his more famous quotes being: “the more pessimistic I feel about life, the more optimistic the films should be”. Somehow, the bleakness of his concerns over the refugee crisis finds its expression in onscreen sunniness. In his notes to the film, written in the same deadpan style as his script, he says, “I have no answer to this [the refugee] problem but I still wanted to deal with the matter in this anyhow unrealistic film”. It's a very specific form of non-realism, lifelike in parts and knowing exactly when to depart from it; a skill that lets his scenes take a slightly magical turn.
The hero of Le Havre is the warm-hearted Marcel Marx (a gently charismatic André Wilms). Previously a Parisian writer and bohemian of note, he has retired to the port, where he lives with his wife Arletty (Kati Outinen). He works as a shoe-shiner and together they manage on his paltry earnings. His daily life is simple until a container full of refugees is intercepted in the port and while the rest are rounded up and taken to a deportation camp, a young boy, Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), escapes. Marcel first spots him on the harbour front and tries to leave him food but is thwarted by enigmatic police officer Monet (Jean-Pierre Darrousin) who has been put in charge of the search. When Marcel returns later with supplies, Idrissa follows him home and Marcel determines to help him. Thanks to a tabloid characterisation of the child as dangerous and possibly a terrorist, the police have launched a big operation to find him and Marcel has a nosy neighbour eager to turn Idrissa in.
The scenes between Wilms and Outinen are naively touching, making the most of a subplot that sees their happiness threatened. Meanwhile, Darrousin and Wilms share a series of sparkling, sparring scenes (Marcel and Monet have a comic version of the antagonistic relationship between Jean Valjean and Javert, Monet popping up unexpectedly to endanger Marx's plans for the child). A third act deus ex machina, in the form of real-life rocker Little Bob, is a bit of an oddity but succeeds in showing the human spirit that shines through Kaurismäki's film.
Rating on a scale of 5 tiny glasses of Calvados: 4.5
Release date: TBC
Directed by: Aki Kaurismäki
Screenplay by: Aki Kaurismäki
Cast: André Wilms, Kati Outinen, Jean-Pierre Darrousin, Blondin Miguel
Running time: 103 mins