Aki Kaurismaki’s latest film “Le Havre” is set apart by the vast majority of films in the annals of French cinema by one simple fact — there’s not a single shot of the compensationally phallic Eiffel Tower (I double checked to make sure). Nobody falls in love, a pistol-wielding Godard protagonist is nowhere to be seen, and neither is a time-traveling Owen Wilson.
\The film takes place 180 miles north of Paris’ glitz and glamour in the eponymous French port city, where we see Marcel Marx, an aged bohemian who shines shoes to put bread (baguettes in this case) on the table, as he takes in Idrissa, a runaway African refugee. We follow Marx through the rustic alleyways that define small-town French living, as we watch a man who can scarcely support himself bring together a small town to fight the hated authorities. In “Le Havre,” bakers, grocers, bartenders and the like come together as the working class that unites against the bourgeois, vintage-wine-sipping immigration police to help Idrissa get to the foggy island that lies just across the English Channel and finally reunite with his mother.
The film’s dialogue is slow and simplistic enough for casual French speakers to follow, probably because most of the cast are foreigners themselves, from a Vietnamese fellow shoe-shiner to Marx’s vaguely Nordic wife. Here, you’re not going to find Aaron Sorkin’s signature rapid-fire verbal jousting, instead we get a dry humor that relies on the idiosyncrasies of French culture. In Aki Kaurismaki’s world, we laugh at a protagonist downs wine in a single gulp instead of sipping, or when he slyly steals yet another baguette from the local baker where his tab “runs longer than the Congo River.”
Aki Kaurismaki tiptoes through heavy subjects like immigration, class inequality, and even cancer, but only tests the waters of controversial issues as he avoids direct political engagement for the most part. His subtle gestures to powerful topics allow him to weave together morose tones with a hearty humor that propels us through his narrative on the human spirit.
Kaurismaki brings a strong visual focus to the film by mixing contrasted pastel tones with a single primary color in each scene—directing the viewer’s eye like a master painter. His scenes look as if they were made by an aged Wes Anderson, through set designs that border on theatrical, but with a wise confidence that relaxes away from the meticulous symmetry of Karuismaki’s American counterpart. We even get visual motifs like a consistent shade of ocean blue being displayed in the backdrop — a reminder of the vast sea that lies at Le Havre’s shores. As we transition between scenes, Kaurismaki intentionally takes a beat before starting the dialogue to give the audience a chance to absorb his cinematic landscapes — putting the verbal and the visual on an even playing field.
For a director that got his fame from his 1989 film “Leningrad Cowboys Go America,” about a tone-deaf, mohawk-donning Finnish rock ‘n’ roll group traveling through America’s south, Kaurismaki has come a long way. His 1989 comedy’s most serious moment was probably when a band mate froze to death in the subzero temperatures of the Finnish Tundra, only to be revived after given a healthy dose of Jose Cuervo. In “Le Havre,” we instead see a newfound ambition to bring powerful emotion and intellectually stimulating topics. With this added depth, the director maintains his matter-of-fact style and subtle humor that make a straight-from-the-heart comedy that is as aesthetically pleasing as it is hilarious.