“Le Havre” is not a story about a man’s triumph over adversity — this is the chapter after he has already failed. Yet through it all, he still strives to be as good a man as he has ever been.

Le Havre

At the Michigan
Future


Marcel Marx (André Wilms, “Americano”) leads a quaint, albeit frugal, life as an elderly shoeshiner in the port city of Le Havre. Whatever little bits and pieces of money he manages to earn are stored in a sorry-looking tin box by his wife Arletty, (Kati Outinen, “The House of Branching Love”) who is later diagnosed with cancer. Marcel has nothing to give, yet when he comes across an illegal refugee named Idrissa (played by newcomer Blondin Miguel) in Le Havre’s harbor, he extends a helping hand.

If only the world was as good as the one portrayed in “Le Havre.” Wherever director Aki Kaurismäki chooses to take the film’s audience, whatever accordion-filled corner his characters inhabit, it’s often a warm and charming place. Such unrealism and naïve optimism is generally unwelcome in a pragmatic world. Here, however, it’s only a pleasant reminder of the virtue in all men.

“Le Havre” never insists on the horrors of the world, so it never really contradicts itself. It begins with a warm glow in the form of a witty opening scene and the humor never misses a single step throughout its 93-minute run time. The script is succinct, giving voice only when necessary, making its sharp moments even sharper.

The film’s wit extends beyond the script. Many times, Kaurismäki will have a medium-range shot of a certain image, like an accordion player. Then, inexplicably, he brings that image right under the viewers’ noses, as if to say, “This is an accordion player; this is his instrument. Look, for once, at how skillfully he plays.” Such images celebrate those slight qualities people normally pass without care. And for a film seeking to champion simple people such as fishermen or shoeshiners, these details fit in nicely.

There is, of course, drama, but it’s on the rather light side, and perhaps audiences should be more thankful than disappointed. “Le Havre” wisely avoids any melodrama. It doesn’t ask for tears or lengthy goodbyes; it portrays a small moment in a refugee’s life and the people who freely give him help because they think it’s the right thing to do. For those expecting a heart-breaking study of refugee life — which is certainly no less worthy of merit — then this is not the film for you.

True — to some extent “Le Havre” is just another riff on the Anne Frank concept, the story of refugees being hidden by those willing to help the unfortunate. It’s an optimistic film that insists on the triumphant good in all men. It’s a well-worn concept and unfortunately lacks the novelty Anne Frank’s words had when she wrote, “In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.” But in a year like 2011 when nostalgia and warm, fuzzy movies dominated, Kaurismäki’s latest effort is well appreciated as a vestige of the past year in cinema.

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