'Le Havre': Tale of an aging Frenchman and an immigrant boy on the run

Jean-Pierre Darroussin (right) plays a police detective hot on the trail of Idrissa, an African boy trying to evade immigration authorities.
Jean-Pierre Darroussin (right) plays a police detective hot on the trail of Idrissa, an African boy trying to evade immigration authorities. (Janus Films)
Posted: November 25, 2011

Watch the weathered faces of the cops and bakers, barkeeps and fishermen, market vendors and layabouts in Aki Kaurismäki's delightful, deadpan Le Havre: Every one of them, whether he or she is at the center of this tale or off on the peripherery, passing by, has a mug that tells a hundred stories.

The camera could go off and follow any of the folks in this sublime little tale - residents of the titular Normandy port city - and you know it would be worth the pursuit.

Kaurismäki has chosen to follow Marcel Marx (André Wilms), an aging gent who shines shoes for a living, shares a tiny back-alley house with his devoted wife, Arletty (Kati Outinen), and their dog, and whose quiet, simple life becomes something more complex, and dangerous, when he befriends an African boy on the run from immigration authorities.

Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) is discovered in a shipping container with a group of Africans bound for London. The boy runs for it, eluding police and hiding out on the docks, where Marcel finds him and invites him back to his house. Arletty has gone to the hospital - diagnosed with something grim and serious, a diagnosis she asks the doctor not to tell her husband. And so Marcel and Idrissa talk, and share meals, while a Le Havre police detective - the comically sinister Jean-Pierre Darroussin, looking like he just stepped out of Le Samourai - shows up at inopportune moments, suspicious, menacing.

Wilms is simply wonderful as the unhurried, humble protagonist, a cash-starved bohemian who has endeared himself with his neighbors (well, all but one) despite owing most of them money. The film is about kindness, and courage, but also about the serious crisis facing Europe as refugees from Africa and elsewhere stream in, undocumented, unwanted. But in the Finnish director's hands, social issues are woven seamlessly into the fabric - this is a story about people, not politics.

Le Havre, too, has the feel of a fable about it. Shot in Kaurismäki's trademark style - cool, loping, observational - the film suggests a slightly better world than the one Marcel, Idrissa, Arletty, and the detective are living in.

If the bummers and ambiguity of some of this season's movies are getting you down - or, hey, just the bummers and ambiguities of life - make your way to Le Havre. You won't be sorry.

Le Havre ***1/2 (out of four stars)

Directed by Aki Kaurismäki. With André Wilms, Kati Outinen, Blondin Miguel, and Jean-Pierre Darroussin. In French with subtitles. Distributed by Janus Films.

Running time: 1 hour, 33 mins.

Parent's guide: No MPAA rating (adult themes).

Playing at: Ritz at the Bourse.

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/.

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