Finding whimsy in gritty city life
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, Dec. 9, 2011
"Miracles do happen," a doctor tells a character named Arletty in "Le Havre," Aki Kaurismaki's new movie. "Not in my neighborhood," she replies.
Welcome to the tender, deadpan world of Kaurismaki, a Finnish filmmaker who has set his story of timely issues and timeless values in the French port city of the title. It turns out that Arletty (Kati Outinen) isn't lying about the town's toughest precincts, where her husband, Marcel (Andre Wilms), works as a shoeshine man. Together they eke out a modest existence along with a tightknit community of friends and neighbors who approach life with a similar signature brand of cynicism and cheerfulness.
When Marcel unexpectedly encounters a young man from Africa named Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), what begins as one man's mission to make a small difference becomes a potent - and often hilarious - testament to the power of community and collective sense of duty.
Filmed in a high, nostalgic style that gives its setting the gleam and romance of another era, "Le Havre" is a movie composed entirely of fantastic faces, starting with Wilms's own ruggedly handsome Marcel, whose even-eyed unflappability gives him the air of Buster Keaton combined with the suavest noir anti-hero. ("Le Havre" fits right in at a time when such films as "Hugo" and "The Artist" are casting fond glances back at cinema's silent era.)
Alternately lighthearted and deeply spiritually grounded, Kaurismaki's distinctive sensibility spins what could have been a grittily realist polemic into a fanciful fable, all the more affecting for being so tethered to the urgencies of the real world.
With its ragtag cast of cinematic archetypes (from Jean-Pierre Darroussin's trench-coated cop to Marcel's faithful pooch named Laika), "Le Havre" is propelled by equal parts theology and whimsy. It's a treacherous combination that in Kaurismaki's capable hands results in one of the finest films of the year, a comedy of unusual compassion and generosity that can get away with its most fanciful contrivances because its style is so simple and its tone so gentle and forgiving. "Le Havre" is a playful parable that conveys profound truths about compassion, humility and sacrifice. It offers proof that miracles do happen - especially in Kaurismaki's lyrically hardscrabble neighborhood.
Contains nothing objectionable. In French with subtitles.