It is estimated that there are between 21.4 and 32.1 illegal immigrants or 10-15% of the total of all immigrants in the world. How to deal with illegal immigration has been a source of controversy in most Western countries and raises many complex political, economic and social issues. Le Havre, however, the latest film by Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki and his first in French, glosses over these thorny issues, turning them instead into a sweet, charming, feel-good odyssey, apparently designed for children who believe in fairy tales and enjoy reading subtitles. Beautifully shot by cinematographer Timo Salminen, the port city has the look and feel of the sixties or seventies.
Only the incongruity of cell phones and those annoying contemporary social problems intrude on the quaintness. In the film, Marcel Marx (André Wilms), a former bohemian artist and sculptor, incongruously shines shoes in Le Havre, France with his co-worker Chang (Vietnamese actor Quoc-dung Nguyen). When his wife Arletty (Kati Outinen), the only one in the film with a Finnish accent, is hospitalized with a serious illness, Marcel finds and takes care of a runaway African boy, Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), an illegal immigrant who escaped from a shipping container that had been sitting on the dock for weeks due to a computer mix-up.
Idrissa is being relentlessly pursued by detective Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), another of Kaurismaki’s morose characters, but is protected by Marcel’s neighbors, the owners of the local bar, bakery, and fruit stand, even though providing shelter for an illegal immigrant is prohibited by law. Idrissa is a cipher who is given few lines to deliver, shows no emotion, and whose role in the film adds nothing to what we know about the plight of illegal immigrants. Totem poles have communicated more. To raise the money needed for Idrissa’s passage to London to be reunited with his mother, a charity rock concert is put on, headed by Little Bob (Robert Piazza), a local rock star, providing the audience with a diverting if extraneous musical interlude.
The sub-plot ends in an uplifting contrivance that does not generate even a modicum of authenticity. In Le Havre, France is depicted as the land of miracle cures, a country where police have compassion for black children, especially if they are illegal immigrants. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in miracles, goodness, warmth, wholesomeness, and all the good stuff in life. I even think it’s okay to help our fellow man, as long as you don’t get carried away. Here, however, the only good stuff that happened is that I was able to resist being force fed on cinematic sugar.
While I think there is certainly room for films to create the space for a new culture of openness and caring where protection of a child is more important than enforcing a morally dubious law, and where neighbors act as a community to do the right thing, the transformation of society must be built on a more solid foundation, that of truth, integrity, and spiritual connection, none of which are present in this film.
Medical doctors act in contradiction to their sworn oath, Marcel, who previously warned Idrissa to stay in the house at all times, sends him on an errand to the hospital alone, compromising the safety he vowed to protect. When his wife tells him she will be in the hospital for a long time, Marcel asks no questions, demands no answers, appears unconcerned, and rarely visits. When a man is shot near his shoeshine stand at a train station, he makes a flip remark about how happy he was to be paid before the killing but shows no concern or compassion for the victim, does not call 911, or otherwise become involved.
Unanticipated medical cures, when they do occur, do not arise from thin air like Shakespeare’s plays, but from a deep well of spiritual connection and high intention, neither of which are in evidence in this situation. Fantasy, of course, has its place but when issues of sociological and ideological significance are present, reducing the issues to good guys versus bad guys removes the viewer from the world they inhabit. Though well-intentioned, Le Havre trivializes complex issues, circumvents others, and ends up being as safe and comfortable as Puss in Boots.