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LE Havre poster

Le Havre

Janus Films; 103 min

Director: Aki Kaurismäki

Written by on October 19, 2011 

While many films have explored themes of post-9/11 paranoia and its resulting xenophobia, none have dared do so with the unrepentant joie de vivre of Le Havre. Rather than wallowing in overwrought melodrama or reveling in ghoulish horror, Finnish writer/director Aki Kaurismäki takes on these dark themes with a gentle hand and crafts a heartwarming tale in a world driven cold from fear of terrorism and by extension outsiders.

This buoyant comedy follows Marcel Marx (André Wilms), a bohemian-spirited shoe shiner who has grown old, but never grown up. He is in many ways a scamp as he playfully shoplifts from his local baker, teases the grousing green grocer, and indulges in glasses of wine at the local pub before returning home to his cheerful but secretly ailing wife Arletty (Kati Outinen), who dresses like an octogenarian school girl complete with romper and barrettes. Theirs is a charmed life in a twee corner of France where lily-white Bohemians and moody rockers have reluctantly entered old age. So, when a happenstance meeting lands Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) a teen-aged African refugee on Marcel’s doorstep, it’s not long before his nosy neighbors notice. But rather than report him, this batch of lively old-timers band together to protect this lost boy from the police and press who frantically declare him to be a possible terrorist threat. These rebels rightly reject the xenophobia that’s infected the world around them and see Idrissa not as a lowly illegal immigrant or a possible threat to national security, but as a boy in search of his family.

This promising premise gracefully blossoms into a quirky and heartwarming tale of friendship and community that expertly avoids feeling didactic or dippy and is flush with unforgettable characters from a world-weary pineapple-toting detective, to a querulous florist, to real-life Le Havre legend, mesmerizing muscian Roberto “Little Bob” Piazza. Their wondrous and warm performances are captured in patient and captivating cinematography that lingers on their inviting countenances, reveling in the power of the close-up. Kaurismäki and cinematographer Timo Salminen create a lush world and vibrant characters through their cleverly crafted mise-en-scène and keen visual storytelling. So much so that it’s easy to imagine Le Havre as a live-action effort by visionary French animation director Sylvain Chomet of Triplets of Belleville and The Illusionist fame. Even the color palette — which seems inspired by the paintings of Edward Hopper — masterfully informs the film’s theme, the cool tones hinting to various threats (of Idrissa’s capture, of Arletty’s death, of the destructive loneliness that either would bring to Marcel) but the defiant warm pops of color urge us to look to the bright side, as the wonderful residents of Le Havre do. Likewise, tense scenes are undercut with humorous visual cues, creating a deftly funny film that transcends the language barrier.

Basically, it’s little wonder that Le Havre has been selected as Finland’s submission for the 2012 Oscar race for Best Foreign-Language. It’s the total package. Balancing dark subject matter and a sincere message with an invitingly light tone, bolstered by poignant yet playful performances and supported by a gorgeous yet deceptively simple visual style, Le Havre is an unapologetic crowdpleaser and an absolute revelation.

Le Havre will will open in limited release October 21. View the trailer here.


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