Warm hearts beat beneath deadpan demeanors in Aki Kaurismaki’s “Le Havre,” the Finnish filmmaker’s French fairy tale about human goodness, working-folk solidarity and immigration laws. Creating a credibly fabular universe and serving up what registers as genuine optimism rather than artificial sunshine, Kaurismaki thwarts sentimentality in this rosy addition to his distinctive catalog. The movie’s a sparkler.
Kaurismaki has made a string of droll comedies about people shortchanged by the gods of fortune, blending elegance and eccentricity into a distinguishing style and conveying enough in the way of human truths to leave viewers feeling touched as well as amused.
“Le Havre,” his first film set in France since 1991’s “La Vie de Boheme,” affirms that distinction. In a neighborhood of have-nots in the titular harbor city, Marcel Marx (André Wilms) is an aging shoe-shine man with a literary past and a seriously ill wife named Arletty (Kati Outinen).
Introduced, comically, as a morally ordinary sort — “Luckily, he had time to pay,” he remarks after a gangster customer gets shot — Marcel displays nobler qualities when he encounters Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), a boy from northern Africa who has escaped from a container of immigrants whose illegal status means they will be taken to a camp and deported.
With the help of shopkeepers and fishermen, Marcel hides Idrissa from authorities, including the persistent Inspector Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), and arranges to ship Idrissa to London, where the boy’s mother lives. He throws a benefit concert featuring real-life rocker Little Bob (playing himself) to fund the mission.
Kaurismaki’s films are gracefully steered, delightfully bonkers mini-marvels, and this one proves likewise. While it doesn’t delve deeply into immigration politics, it is quietly moving in its depiction of the refugee experience.
However “unrealistic” (a word used by Kaurismaki himself) its story may be, the film presents a thoroughly convincing and charming picture of the ability of our species to act compassionately.
The streets of Le Havre have an enchanted old-movie look here, and Kaurismaki’s bent for quirkiness results in some wonderfully off-kilter bits. Friends read Kafka to the ailing Arletty. The dead-serious Monet walks around with a pineapple.
The ending is unexpectedly powerful.
The film also contains fond references to French and old cinema (Kaurismaki has cited Marcel Carne as an influence) in everything from the names of characters to some “Casablanca” moments to a cameo by New Wave notable Jean-Pierre Leaud (playing the town snitch).
Save for Idrissa, who comes across largely as a symbol of the refugee condition, the major characters — played by a mix of Kaurismaki regulars and newcomers — reveal interesting, affecting shades beneath their pokerfaced visages.
The impressive cast also includes Evelyne Didi as Yvette the baker and Laika, the Kaurismaki family dog.
Starring André Wilms, Kati Outinen, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Blondin Miguel
Written and directed by Aki Kaurismaki
Running time 1 hour 33 minutes