One of the most attractive features of Aki Kaurismäki’s films is their setting: the Finnish director has a talent for creating warm, vivid atmospheres from places that one would usually consider drab and uninspiring. He has done this many times in Helsinki (notably in The Man With No Past), but Le Havre, with its post-industrial waterfront, was an ideal candidate.
The story centres on Marcel Marx (André Wilms), an ageing man living modestly on his job as a shoe-shiner, whose life is disturbed suddenly by two momentous events: his wife Arletty’s (Kati Outinen) sudden illness and departure to the hospital, and his encounter with a young illegal immigrant from Mali (Blondin Miguel) who is fleeing the police.
On a superficial level everything is straightforward: the story, the dialogue, the character’s actions and their motivations – yet this apparent simplicity only serves to bring out the film’s depth of vision. The dialogue appears artificial: the actors, especially the excellent André Wilms, speak few words and slowly enunciate each of them. However, what they say is always pregnant with meaning – and often, as if unintentionally, very funny.
Similarly, there are few moral dilemmas: it is always taken for granted that Marx and his neighbours will help the boy evade arrest, yet in our society this attitude of simple, straightforward generosity is not a given. The city comes alive through the characters, and so Kaurismäki’s Le Havre, from a grey, modern port, acquires a kind of universality: the film could equally be set today or in the 1970s and the characters embody certain attitudes which have relevance far beyond the film’s apparent spatiotemporal context.