Le Havre is Finland’s official entry for this year’s Foreign Language Oscar, as it is the work of celebrated Finnish writer-director Aki Kaurismäki—yet it takes place in France, where it was shot with a nearly all-French cast. Let us agree, then, not to get caught up in details or semantics and simply enjoy this charming fable.
Andre Wilms plays a courtly older man who ekes out a living by shining shoes near the train station in the seaside city of Le Havre. He returns to his apartment each night where his—
—devoted wife has prepared dinner for him. One day he happens to witness the police opening a huge container, just transported by ship, with a group of Africans huddled inside. One of them, an adolescent boy, makes a run for it and manages to get away. After a chance meeting the next day, Wilms’ determines to help the boy.
If the story outline seems simple, it is; this movie is all about attitude and style. The shabby-genteel hero, who has a keen sense of irony, and the people who help him—neighborhood shopkeepers, the proprietress of the local bar, and even a member of the local police force—are reminiscent of the Damon Runyon characters in Frank Capra’s Lady for a Day (and Capra’s own remake, Pocketful of Miracles). These colorful, sometimes surprising, good-hearted people may not exist in real life, but we wish they did.
In an homage to French cinema, Kaurismäki has cast two seminal figures in minor roles: Jean-Pierre Léaud, François Truffaut’s unforgettable young hero, as an angry neighbor, and Pierre Étaix, the great clown and filmmaker whose work is being rediscovered this year, as a sympathetic doctor. It’s a treat to see them both. The film also introduces us to a performer named Little Bob, who reminds me of a Gallic Roy Orbison.
Le Havre is opening theatrically in New York and Los Angeles. I don’t know how many other cities it will play, but if you’re tired of cynicism and pretentiousness and feel like a cinematic breath of fresh air, I encourage you to see it.