Although he doesn’t understand a word of it, Kaurismaki has once again made a film in the language of Molière, in France, more precisely in the High Normandy region in the small port city of Le Havre, whose vestiges resist the tides of time.
Marcel Marx (André Wilms) shines shoes. When the police discover a container full of illegal immigrants, an African boy (Blondin Miguel) escapes and finds refuge with Marcel, who will help him reach England.
One of the most accomplished films from a filmmaker often full of cynicism, Le Havre is a small marvel of intelligence, formal inspiration and eccentric humour. There are many references, which help render the film an enchanting comedy, with touches of the surreal.
Marcel Marx is a former writer. Speaking a pure and obsolete French, he wields the imperfect subjunctive with the same dexterity with which he wields the rag he uses to shine shoes. He is a man from another era, the kind of man that existed among the poor. Or perhaps he never existed, but Kaurismaki refuses to believe this. The director has become sweeter with age and his optimism lets us dream.
For Kaurismaki, minimalism is the art of stylizing the real. Some may not like this acting style that consists of speaking one’s lines with an empty gaze, but it is actually a formidable foray into the absurd, mastered to perfection. The dialogue is systematically out of sync with its subjects and each line is a surprise. In directing his foreign cast, the director has placed his trust in the musicality of the language and the sobriety of the movements, which are as undemonstrative as possible.
The story takes place today, but the director has set it in an archetypical environment that seems imported directly from 1960s rural France. The issues are politically topical. Clandestine immigration, police brutality and the political circus are other issues that the film touches upon, in a reality that is nevertheless entirely made up.
The men of Le Havre are kind and fraternal. Their hearts are solid and good. When a Melville-like inspector (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) is called to exert his usual repressive violence, he naturally gives in to the surrounding kindness. To hell with realism, there’s a good lesson to be learned here.
Ultimately, Le Havre is an elegant and rhythmical story in which the stoic humour and generosity win over political discourses and the gravity of everyday life. A film that is both simple and difficult to achieve. A marvel.