Le Havre tells the story of an African refugee who has stowed away on a cargo crate that was stopped in Normandy on its way to London. The refugee, a boy of about 10, is trying to meet his mother, who has already emigrated.When the crate is discovered by French immegration, he escapes and picks the right house to hide in, that of the kind shoe shiner, Marcel. Marcel, who is dealing with his dying wife in a nearby hospital, semi-adopts the boy and makes it his project to get him across the channel to England. As told by Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki, this routine story is presented with pathos and humanity as all of his stories are, but it lacks the biting despair of his previous work, specifically the superb The Match Factory Girl from 1990.
That element isn’t wholly missing from Le Havre, per se, and it does make for a lovely, if slight, experience. We have the immigration inspector (Jean-Pierre Darrousin), quite good in the thankless role of the worrisome authority figure and despite his arc being sadly telegraphed by the script, Darrousin brings enough heft to rise above the material. There’s also the Match Factory Girl herself, Kati Outinen, as Arlotty, the dying wife, whose sad, equine face enhances any performance. There’s also the rock star Little Bob who is recruited for a charity concert (which are trendy we find out). You will find that Little Bob is flawlessly named and impossible not to watch. I can’t go too long without mentioning the cameo by Jean-Pierre Leaud as an anxious citizen but this is really the story of Marcel and the boy, buoyed by fine performances by Andre Wilms and Blondin Miguel respectively. They aren’t showy but understated and decent, especially Miguel who avoids melodrama, this is a child who has most likely seen too much and is just trying to move to the next location.
Le Havre reminded me of Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief, not in any plot or thematic sense, but because it’s a light departure from a usually dark director (the ending of Le Havre couldn’t be sweeter, which I never thought I’d say about a Kaurismaki movie). It also made me think of Mr. Hulot, not just because of its coastal setting (I seem to always think of Hulot on holiday) but because of its charm and almost silent comic quality. I don’t think anyone is going to argue for Kaurismaki as a great director on the strength of Le Havre alone, but it’s a wonderful movie to compliment a stellar career. A slice of cake.