Marcel Marx (André Wilms), a former author and a well-known Bohemian, has retreated into a voluntary exile in the port city of Le Havre, when fate suddenly throws in his path an underage immigrant refugee from the darkest Africa. Confronted by a dragnet of the police closing around the refugee boy, it's time for Marcel to polish his shoes and reveal his teeth.

Kaurismaki brings dry laughs to story of the refugee crisis

CANNES FILM FESTIVAL 2010: A droll battle cry for the downtrodden, Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre expertly turns France’s contemporary humanitarian crisis into a retro-themed resistance fable, with sufficient optimism and wit to counterbalance its potential for sentimentality.

France’s hard-line immigration policies have spawned a variety of films that seek to focus on the individual stories of those who seek passage to England through the ports of northern France. Most recently, SBS audiences would recall Philippe Lioret’s Welcome, the 2010 story of a crusty swimming coach forever changed by the Iraqi refugee he trains to cross the English Channel. Lioret’s storytelling was straightforward and touching, but Finland’s anarchist auteur Kaurismäki takes a distinctly original approach. With Le Havre, he has crafted something truly special in his cloak-and-dagger tale of a group of rough diamonds and n’er-do-wells who band together to smuggle an African stowaway to safety.

Andre Wilms is endearingly over-the-top as brusque bohemian shoe-shine, Marcel Marx, a verbose man of principle who refuses to kowtow to society’s dictates of right/wrong, much less to a greengrocer’s requests for payment. (A creditor quips that he "wouldn’t "let an unpaid bill keep him awake"). Marcel enjoys simple pleasures - and the odd swiped baguette - with his devoted wife, Arletty (Kaurismaki regular Kati Outinen) and dog, Laika, in the seaside community of Le Havre ('the haven’), Normandy.

The discovery of a shipping container filled with human cargo elicits a hysterical response from the press, and a runaway minor sparks a major diplomatic incident. Trench-coated inspector Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) is dispatched to recover the child, Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), and - no thanks to an indiscreet neighbour (another plot point the film shares with Welcome) - the trail soon leads to Marcel's front stoop. With Arletty plagued by mystery illness, Marcel finds purpose in a mission to reunite the boy with his mother in London. He mobilises a willing network of accomplices to help facilitate the reunion (and if they can outsmart the wily inspector, all the better).

In a nod to Casablanca, Kaurismaki sows the seeds for a Rick/Renault-like "beautiful friendship" to thrive between smuggler Marcel and his pursuer, Monet, as their cat-and-mouse game plays out. The overwhelming sense of Resistance-era nostalgia abounds in the director’s trademark stark lines and saturated colours, and in the crackly ragtime recordings on Marcel’s gramophone.

The broad themes of Le Havre may bring new fans to Kaurismaki’s work, and frankly, the film should be required viewing for children, for the elegant way it cuts through the cynicism to demonstrate the benefits of a community acting responsibly. It might sound naïve but in practice it truly isn’t, thanks largely to Kaurismäki’s witty script. Complex social and political issues are distilled into impactful exchanges that skewer (to perfection) bureaucracy, people smugglers, and prevailing attitudes to 'outsiders’.

(Bonus point too, for Kaurismäki’s brand of droll humanism which doesn’t overcook the joke – where others might feel compelled to question a man grasping a pointy pineapple in unwelcome surrounds, he lets the sight gag speak for itself). 

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Watch 'Le Havre'

Midday, Wednesday 19 April 2017, SBS VICELAND
SBS On Demand

Le Havre: Aki Kaurismaki interview