When Aki Kaurismäki’s film The Man Without a Past was nominated for an Academy Award in 2003, Kaurismäki refused to attend the Oscar festivities because he objected to the fact that George W. Bush was about to invade Iraq for no good reason. In 2006, Finnish cinema authorities submitted another of Kaurismäki’s films, Lights in the Dusk, without asking his permission. He vetoed the submission and Finland went without an entry that year. Now, with U.S. combat troops out of Iraq, Kaurismäki has lifted his Oscar boycott, and Le Havre went forward as Finland’s entry.
This was one of three European films entered this year that deal with everyday people who decide to help illegal immigrants. The others are Terrafirma from Italy and Morgen from Romania. The former is harsh and more confrontational; the latter is a bit amusing, but undistinguished.
In Le Havre, Kaurismäki regular André Wilms plays Marcel Marx, a former bohemian, now in his sixties, who scrapes by shining shoes in an era when fewer and fewer people wear shinable shoes. One day, after his beloved wife has been taken to the hospital, Marx comes upon a pre-teen boy from Gabon who is trying to make his way to England to find his mother. Because all of the other immigrants with whom the boy, Idrissa, was traveling have been arrested, the local constabulary becomes obsessed with capturing him. Marx, emerging from his personal cocoon, makes it his mission to help the boy. Along the way he is aided by a neighborhood of characters reminiscent of the cast of the classic French trilogy from the 1930s, Marius, Fanny and César.
I have read other reviews of Le Havre that grumble about it being “sugar-coated” or a “fairy tale,” but it worked for me and was, in fact, my favorite of the 50 foreign language entries I saw. Maybe I was just in the mood for a feel-good story in the midst of troubled times.