This blog entry contains spoilers.
Most of Aki Kaurismäki’s movies have happy endings, but Le Havre (2011) may be the first that’s happy all the way through. The story is about a shoeshine man from Normandy who wants to reunite an African child with his mother in London by helping him to illegally cross the English Channel. However, this isn’t one of those films where an old curmudgeon becomes a better person by helping a child in need because its hero, Marcel Marx (André Wilms), is already a nice guy when the story opens. The film is characteristically genial and quietly beguiling, but the plot never really grabbed me.
The problem, I think, is that Kaurismäki is too fond of his characters, who are all decent people; he doesn’t have the heart to grind them into dust. The newspapers are full of stories about vulnerable children being exploited by heartless adults, but the boy in this movie, Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), has the good fortune to meet a community of people willing to go out of their way to help him. When Marcel talks to a sailor about hiring a boat to take Idrissa across the channel, the sailor explains that he’ll take him half-way and then a second boat will carry him to shore. This would normally cost six thousand Euros, but Marcel only has to pay half that because the sailor generously offers to wave his part of the fee. Even the detective assigned to catch Idrissa (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) doesn’t much want to find him. There is one character, listed in the credits only as the informer (Jean-Pierre Léaud), who turns up as needed to generate suspense, but for the most part, the characters are reflexively noble and altruistic.
The film is similarly affirmative in its treatment of heterosexual monogamy. To raise the money to send Idrissa to England, a friend of Marcel’s (Roberto Piazza) agrees to put on a charity rock concert. The only catch is that Marcel has to help him patch things up with his old lady, which doesn’t take much doing. As the singer explains, “Without her, my voice lacks substance. She’s the road manager of my soul.” In one scene, we see him sitting sullenly in the gloom of a neighborhood bar. When his old lady returns, an unmotivated spotlight fills the room with brightness. Meanwhile, Marcel’s own old lady, Arletty (Kati Outinen), is in the hospital with an unspecified stomach ailment (cancer), but she makes her doctor promise not to tell Marcel the truth so that he won’t suffer. In the final scene, in which Arletty comes home from the hospital, her yellow dress and blond hair stand out against the muted backdrop, making her a splash of colour in Marcel’s otherwise drab existence. As a rule, Kaurismäki’s women are a lot sturdier and more resilient than his men, who couldn’t get along without them (see Shadows in Paradise  and Drifting Clouds ).
Le Havre is a hard film to dislike. It’s defiantly uncynical and clearly the work of a master stylist, but I wanted to see the characters suffer more. One keeps waiting for them to hit an obstacle—that the singer’s old lady won’t want to come back, or that Arletty’s condition will deteriorate to the point that she’s unable to hide the truth from Marcel—but they never do. Since the story is set in France, Marcel doesn’t even have to worry about paying Arletty’s hospital bills. Prior to making this film, Kaurismäki’s biggest international hit was The Man Without a Past (2002), about a homeless amnesiac who rents a disused shipping container to live in. Like Le Havre, it’s whimsical and sentimental but also a little melancholy. There’s a memorable scene in which the hero’s neighbor speaks longingly of one day living in a council flat. Set beside that wonderful film, Le Havre is a decidedly minor work, although I suppose there are worse things in the world than a movie that’s just too gosh darn cheerful.