Judge Clark Douglas wants to be Little Bob when he grows up.
A charming, deadpan delight.
"I'll get started on dinner."
Facts of the Case
Marcel Marx (Andre Wilms, Europa Europa) is a simple Frenchman who leads a simple life. He spends most of each day looking for a good spot to set up his shoe-shine stand, and then either wanders home to his wife Arletty (Kati Outinen, The Man Without a Past) or to the local pub (the latter more often than the former). One day, Marcel has a chance encounter with Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), an African boy who has just arrived in the country illegally via cargo ship. The police are attempting to hunt down the young immigrant, but Marcel takes pity on Idrissa and agrees to hide him. Will Marcel be able to help Idrissa establish a new life before the police catch up to him?
The opening scene of Aki Kaurismaki's Le Havre is a great little sequence that firmly establishes the central character and the movie's oddly charming tone. Marcel is shining the shoes of a well-dressed, nervous-looking businessman. After the job is done, the businessman shoves a bill into Marcel's hands and marches off. Seconds later, the businessman is gunned down by gangsters, who promptly disappear after taking down their target. Marcel and his friend Chang (Quoc Dung Nguyen) seem completely unfazed by this, and simply stare at the dead man with raised eyebrows. "Well, at least he had time to pay," Marcel sighs.
It's a strangely charming way to establish Marcel's unsentimental view of the world; he isn't a hardened man so much as he is a practical one. Alas, innocent young Idrissa causes him to throw his practical nature to the wind and risk everything. It all plays out in a manner that is much less dramatic than that previous sentence makes it sound, however. One of the charms of Le Havre is that no matter how heavy the subject matter gets (and we're talking about a movie that focuses heavily on terminal illness and the plight of illegal immigrants), the movie always employs a feather-light touch. No, it doesn't have the dramatic heft of some other films about similar subjects, but neither does it risk becoming a self-important bore.
Criterion's Blu-ray packaging refers to the film as "a political fairy tale," which seems just about right. Though the movie deals with real-world issues in a thoughtful way, for the most part it consciously avoids reality for the sake of creating a gentle fantasy. For instance, when a group of immigrants arrive in France after spending two weeks in a shipping container, they aren't bedraggled-looking refugees starving in their own filth, but well-dressed folks looking like they've just gotten off the afternoon train. There's no way the situation presented in the film would play out the way it does in real life, but Kaurismaki's story is less an expose on what's happening than a parable about the rewards of being decent human beings.
The core of the film resides in two relationships, both of which involve Marcel. The first is the cat-and-mouse dynamic between Marcel and police inspector Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin, A Very Long Engagement). The prickly, playful conversations between them are more than a little reminiscent of the chats between Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains in Casablanca; the world-weary Monet is so likable that we never regard him as a villain despite the fact that he's working hard to thwart Marcel's plans. The other key relationship is between Marcel and Arletty, who learns early in the film that she has a terminal illness but makes a valiant effort to hide this fact from her concerned husband. Their scenes together are touching and unpredictable; arguably the finest moments the film has to offer.
Regrettably, the relationship between Marcel and Idrissa isn't much, because Idrissa is regarded more as an adorable plot device than as a full-blown character. He's onhand to fuel Marcel's story rather than to participate in a story of his own. While this is a liability, it's offset by the film's strong handling of its other key characters and by the movie's handful of exquisite surprises. Two scenes in particular are going to stick with me for a long time. The first is a concert featuring a musician named "Little Bob," who looks like a tired old woman but performs energetic rockabilly tunes. His stage presence is so oddly compelling that once Kaurismaki zooms in on him, the film pauses for five minutes or so just to enjoy the show. The second scene is the ending, which I won't spoil or even describe save for saying that it completely blindsided me and brought me to tears. The film may be a bit slight as a whole, but it features one of the most marvelously bold endings I've seen lately; a scene that gives the entire film a rich new context. Well done.
Le Havre: Criterion Collection (Blu-ray) arrives sporting a very attractive 1080p/1.85:1 transfer. The film features quite a few close-ups, all of which benefit from exceptional facial detail. Depth is strong throughout, really enriching the visually involving compositions employed throughout the film. Flesh tones are warm and natural, blacks are deep and inky. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is also quite good, even though the accordion selections that underscore much of the film feel more than a little stereotypical (hey, it's France—accordions!). Still, the mix is strong, sound design is solid when it's heavily-employed and dialogue is clear. Supplements include a cast and crew press conference from the Cannes Film Festival (46 minutes), a Cannes interview with most of the same group (12 minutes), an interview with actor Andre Wilms (14 minutes) and actress Kati Outinen (49 minutes), 9 minutes of concert footage featuring the aforementioned Little Bob (nice move, Criterion!), a theatrical trailer and a booklet featuring an essay by Michael Sicinski and an interview with Kaurismaki.
A breezy, sweet-natured fable boasting an ending worthy of comparison with Dreyer's Ordet, Le Havre is well worth your time. Criterion's Blu-ray release is typically stellar.
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