An African boy finds an unlikely ally in the form of a Bohemian-turned-shoeshine pensioner and a temporary home in the titular Normandy port in Aki Kaurismaki’s frustrating comedy-drama.
Marcel Marx (André Wilms) is an ex-author sleepwalking into old age in Le Havre, filling his days with the passing trade of shining shoes, the camaraderie of his local bar and the devotion of his dutiful but ailing wife Arletty. A chance encounter with Gabonese illegal immigrant Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) disrupts Marcel’s comfortable routine but before long Marcel’s enlisting his neighbours and angering the local gendarmes as he keeps the boy hidden and plans Idrissa’s escape.
It’s a premise full of promise, both dramatic and comic. How will Marcel keep Idrissa safe in such a small community? What kind of scrapes will they get into together? Will the youngster help the old man rediscover his joie de vivre? ??Unfortunately, Kaurismaki –who wrote, directed and produced – squanders the opportunity to say something profound and heartening about immigration in Europe, instead fashioning a slow, rigid and rather cold piece. ??You’d imagine the introduction of a stern, moustachioed detective character would foreshadow some thrilling third act sequences in which Marcel somehow manages to keep his young house-guest concealed from the police. Instead the villain of the piece is so one-dimensionally authoritarian that his denouement change of heart feels laughable.
You’d presume that the collision of an ageing-ex Bohemian and a young boy in search of a better life in Europe would include some touching and hilarious set-pieces where the pair overcome their differences to become true friends. Perhaps Marcel could teach Idrissa about Sartre while the refugee helps the pensioner appreciate hip-hop. But their interaction in the film is so fleeting, and Wilms’ posture and diction so stiff and mannered that it’s hard to believe in their friendship or feel anything other than ambivalence when parting becomes a possibility.
And you’d be justified in expecting the sub-plot of Arletty’s worsening health to provide a bittersweet climax, whatever Idrissa’s future holds. Instead, Kaurismaki employs an audacious deus ex machina and a supposedly uplifting ending only irritates.?? Miguel is impressive for a first-timer, Quoc-Dung Nguyen and Evelyne Didi provide likeable support and Kaurismaki’s message is creditable and clear – unfortunately, his aim is a little off.
??Le Havre is an optimistic but visually flat film that jettisons its central theme through flabby editing and a ponderous plot.