A fulsome optimism has crept into the world of Aki Kaurismäki, the Finnish director whose films have always been marked by their distinctive blend of deadpan humor and quotidian melodrama. To Kaurismäki's panoply of underdogs, outsiders and bohemians, Le Havre now adds a sense of people's willingness to do good.
Filmed in the French port city of le Havre, Le Havre was Finland's nominee for this year's Foreign Language Oscar. André Wilms is Marcel Marx, a name redolent of cinema and social history. An aging shoeshine man who claims to have been a bohemian in his younger years, Marcel loves his drink and his saucer-eyed wife, Arletty (Kati Outinen, a Kaurismäki regular). He owes money to all the neighborhood merchants, but he and Arletty get by on the few euros he earns and a few snatched baguettes.
Then Arletty takes ill and must be hospitalized, and the cops discover a shipping container that holds a passel of smuggled but misrouted humans from Gabon. A young boy named Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) escapes, and the newspapers trumpet the possibility of an al Qaida connection. Marcel encounters the boy by accident and soon makes it his mission to reunite him with his mother, who is waiting in London. At every turn the trenchcoat-wearing Detective Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) appears, sniffing for clues. Amusingly, the one neighborhood bloke who rats out Idrissa's whereabouts is played by Jean-Pierre Léaud, a.k.a. Antoine Doinel, Franois Truffaut's little boy lost in The 400 Blows.
Le Havre has no interest in the intricacies of illegal workers and immigration. The film is really a story about community and how it unites for something it deems important. But more, it is about mood and tone. Kaurismäki's mordant humor - part verbal, part visual - remains intact. Cinematographer Timo Salminen frames everything crisply so that the city of le Havre's grays are illuminated with splashes of color yet retain a somewhat misty allure, as though he were filming a '40s spy drama like Casablanca.
Le Havre marks a shift toward more commercially minded fare for Kaurismäki, and it would be great to get him out of the arthouse ghetto he's been remanded to in the States. Le Havre is not the filmmaker's best work (see La Vie de Bohème for that), but no matter the storm, we should be grateful to dock in this port.