A shoeshine for your soul: Le Havre ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 12, 2011)

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W.C. Fields once cautioned “Never work with children or animals.” I suppose you could say that Aki Kaurismaki has completely thrown caution to the wind with his new film. In Le Havre, the latest in a long line of deadpan character studies, the Finnish director weaves a deceptively simple tale about an elderly French author named Marcel (Andre Wilms) who is taking an open-ended hiatus from writing, opting instead to make a less-than-modest living shining shoes in the picturesque port town of Le Havre.

In a dryly amusing opening, Marcel andfellow shoe-shiner Chang (Quoc Dung Nguyen) stand impassively at a busy metro station, wistfully tracking the parade of shoes worn by passers-by, not unlike a dog who sits by the dinner table with infinite patience, fixing a Mesmer stare on your fork as if willing a morsel to fall its way.

Hell of a way to make a living, but it seems to suit Marcel just fine. He revels in the easygoing camaraderie among the inhabitants of his almost Utopian neighborhood, and is perfectly happy to come home to his wife Arletty (Kati Outinen) and his dog Laika (played by the director’s own pooch) to drink a little wine and enjoy a simple meal.

One day, as he is lunching down by a pier, he is startled by a commotion of police, who seem to be looking for somebody. While the police are still poking around, Marcel spots a young boy (Blondin Miguel), half-submerged in the water and obviously frightened out of his wits. Marcel quickly puts two and two together, but keeps a poker face until the police have left the area. He offers the boy food, and, as they say in the movies, it’s the start of a beautiful friendship.

The remainder of the narrative deals with Marcel’s efforts to reunite the boy (a Senegalese refugee who was smuggled into Le Havre in a shipping container) with his mother, an illegal immigrant living in London. As he keeps one eye on a highly suspicious police inspector (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) Marcel is aided by fellow villagers, who pull together to form an underground railroad, of sorts.

Although the story is set in contemporary times, the film reminded me of Jean-Pierre Melville’s WW2 French Resistance tale, Army of Shadows. There are parallel themes of loyalty, selflessness and the kind of collective idealism that seems to belong to a bygone era. Stylistically, however, Kaurismaki and Melville could not be any different. To say that Kaurismaki likes to populate his films with quirky characters is an understatement.

For instance, I’d love to know where he found Roberto Piazza, as “Little Bob”, a musician who Marcel recruits to perform a makeshift benefit concert. To look at this odd little gentleman, you’d never dream that he could rock out the way he does once he’s onstage (it’s like the first time you saw Andy Kaufman “become” Elvis). Little Bob also gets the best line  (“She’s like the road manager of my soul.”).

If you are not familiar with Kaurismaki’s oeuvre, this might not be your best introduction (for that, I would direct you to his wonderful 2002 film, The Man without a Past). Jim Jarmusch absolutely worships Kaurismaki; they definitely share the same sense of humor, as well as the same sense of, er, pacing…if that helps. You’re not going to see a lot of car chases, okay? And if you can settle in with this tale’s unhurried rhythms, you might just catch the compassion and humanity at its core. Think of it as a shoeshine for your soul.

…and for your dining and dancing pleasure, here’s Little Bob:

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