The first two scenes in Le Havre, Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki’s latest deadpan fable, conjure an air of menace and frustration—but most of the rest of the film is refreshingly good-natured. Wizened shoeshiner Marcel Marx (André Wilms), who plies his trade in the eponymous French port town, is introduced blackening the boots of a customer when sinister figures emerge at the corners of the screen, the director cutting in to their comically expressionless faces. After these men carry off Marx’s customer, they offer him a pittance for his business losses, which is more than he gets in the second scene, when he’s rudely booted from his perch in front of a department store.
In just a few minutes of screen time, the film establishes that specifically Kaurismäkian world of sad-sack losers, humorously incongruous but uncommented-upon presences, and the director’s trademark careful attention to visages, generally shot straight on and accented by exaggerated lighting. In fact the world of Le Havre can be said to consist of a succession of friendly faces and comically sinister figures—one of whom, in a film heavy with allusions to French literature and cinema, is played by Jean-Pierre Léaud. But positive vibes dominate this go-round as Marx takes an African refugee, a young boy escaped from a shipping crate at the docks, into his home, helps him elude the authorities (represented by an ever-present police inspector in black hat, black trench coat, black leather gloves, and a grey moustache) and escape via boat for London. Along the way he’s helped by a community of friends and sympathetic companions as well a few surprising turns of fate (whose lack of narrative credibility Kaurismäki has fun with).
But despite the film’s feel-good tone and its staging of a few rather spectacularly humorous sequences (Marx intimidating a refugee center director, the detective entering a bar carrying a pineapple while he draws stares from the locals), the specter of death and detention hangs perpetually over the proceedings. The former emerges via Marx’s terminally ill wife and her anguished face, which Kaurismäki honors with a conspicuous zoom-in early in the film; the latter comes courtesy of the refugee storyline and provides the film with one of its most haunting moments. When the police open the crate by the docks to reveal a population of Africans, the director cuts out the music, and picks out a succession of close-ups which simply stare back at the camera. But it’s the convergence of the two storylines—via a meeting of the refugee boy, Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) and Mrs. Marx at the latter’s hospital bed—that provides the project with its sentimental highlight. Suddenly, Idrissa goes from being a black cipher in a white person’s story to a young man of precocious understanding and a natural generosity matching that of Kaurismäki in crafting his irrepressible latest.