Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre is something of a comeback for the Finnish filmmaker. His warmhearted comedy of underdog working-class solidarity, made with a mixed Finnish-French-Senegalese cast in the French port city Le Havre, was the most warmly received movie—at least by the press—shown last May in Cannes.
The French setting seems to have leavened Kaurismäki’s morose humor. Le Havre (which means “the haven” in French) envisions a new, post-communist international—it might have been made for the IWW, if not the occupants of Zuccotti Park. The movie’s pointedly named protagonist Marcel Marx (André Wilms) is a middle-aged shoe-shine boy with a weathered, noble profile, an upstanding wife Arletty (Kaurismäki favorite Kati Outinen), a faithful dog (named Laïka after the pioneering canine cosmonaut), a natural belief in fraternité, and a mystical sense of calling. Shining shoes, per Marcel, is the profession “closest to the people and the last to respect the Sermon on the Mount.” (This second claim seems as open to interpretation as the sermon itself.)
Marcel’s opportunity for comradely action comes when he meets a young Senegalese boy (Blondin Miguel), who was separated from his stowaway family en route to London and is being sought by the French authorities as an illegal alien. Despite the complication of Arletty’s terminal illness, the snooping of grim-faced inspector Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), and the machinations of the neighborhood snitch (Jean-Pierre Léaud), Marcel is able rally the denizens of Le Havre’s old fishermen’s quarter to the boy’s aid, complete with a “trendy charity concert” (featuring the local Elvis, venerable French rock ’n’ roller Little Bob). Miracles may occur, and even the seemingly sinister Monet might turn out to be salt of the earth. Kaurismäki has dryly characterized Le Havre as “anyhow unrealistic.”
However downbeat, Kaurismäki’s films have always shown a strong sentimental streak, and Le Havre’s ending is contrived to give the audience exactly what it wants, without irony—and, providing minds are engaged along with feelings, they’ll know it. “The loveliest dream bears like a blemish its difference from reality, the awareness that what it grants is mere illusion,” Theodor Adorno wrote of Kafka’s Amerika—an immigrant saga that Kaurismäki pointedly cites in the movie. So too this evocation of Europe’s refugee problem; Le Havre is utopian precisely because it shows everything as it is not.