Le Havre (2011) is the latest film by probably the most renowned Finnish director, Aki Kaurismäki; it can be described as an urban fairytale, which takes place in Le Havre, a port city in northern France. Marcel Marx (André Wilms) lives peacefully with his wife Arletty (Kati Outinen), working on meager pay as a shoeshiner. While fishing, Marcel encounters a refugee boy, Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), hiding in the water—the boy asks politely if he is in London, and the old man gives him some food. After running into inspector Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), who demands to know the whereabouts of the fugitive, Marcel decides to offer Idrissa shelter in his home; with the help of the neighbours, they arrange a come-back concert of a local rock legend, Little Bob, in order to finance Idrissa’s journey to his original destination, on the other side of the bay.
Kaurismäki started out as a co-director together with his brother Mika, and made his directing debut Rikos ja Rangaistus (1983) on a modern adaptation of Dostoyevski’s classic novel Crime and Punishment, and developed in his films an austere minimalism in terms of dialogue (the sparse, formally delivered lines) and cinematography. In Finland it’s difficult to get funding for film projects, so most productions are done on very low budgets—this is shown to be an advantage in Kaurismäki’s films. Also a recurring theme is the bleak, yet absurdly optimistic depiction of working class life; in Le Havre this theme is revisited, in different surroundings but the deadpan humor intact, with a warmer tone overall.
Le Havre was originally intended to take place in a Mediterranean coastal city, but Le Havre, the film’s namesake, was eventually chosen as the filming location due to its unique atmosphere and music scene. Some of the scenes are drawn from life, or inspired by an iconic character (Monet was based on detective Porfiry, from Crime and Punishment). The performances are heartfelt and hold the balance of the cheerful and melancholy moments with seeming ease and subtlety; as one writer from Variety defines Le Havre,
It’s like listening to a band that’s been cheerfully churning it out for years, whose members all know each other’s timings inside out, not unlike onscreen performers Little Bob and his grizzled, perfectly in-sync crew.
In an interview, Kaurismäki stated that the story of Le Havre sprung from the news articles and TV broadcasts about illegal immigrants, who have been promised a new life in Europe, ending up drowned in the Mediterranean. There was nothing else he could do but make a film about it, and perhaps this is a reaction to the hopeless reality portrayed by the media; an alternate ending to the casualties of people driven by the hope of a better life.