La Havre, named for the port city in northern France where the film takes place, is a salt-of-the-earth tale of poverty, people, and passion. While not quite melodrama, its suspense lies in the simple and easy-going relationships of its characters. They are compelling because, though the events of the film seem ever so storybook, It’s easy to go along with it anyway because the story seems lived in and the characters real. The film’s tone is set by a contemporary France, cracking down on illegal immigration in attempts to curb terrorism threats. Enter Marcel Marx (duly named after Karl Marx) the proletariat hero of our story.
Marcel, a one-time author and bohemian, now a humble shoe shiner working in the local train station lives in a poor part of town, in a tiny house with his wife Arletty, and his dog, Laika. He is surrounded by the type of idyllic people one would more expect in a small, rural town. Friendly, modest, and unassuming people much like Marcel, just trying to get by. The comfortable ease is suddenly broken up when, after coming home from the local bar, Marcel finds Arletty on the floor, weak and gravely ill. Marcel gets her to the hospital with the help of his neighbor, Yvette, only to learn she has cancer. Arletty gets the Doctor to tell Marcel that it is only benign and that there is hope. Marcel puts on a brave face, but his neighbors and friends can tell that the grief is getting to him. Being a Bohemian, Marcel, like most of his friends, who are outcasts and foreigners, makes it a point to avoid the police. This gets extremely difficult when he suddenly comes upon a wide-eyed young boy from Gabon while taking his lunch by the docks in the city harbor. Idrissa is on the run from authorities after being discovered in a shipping container filled with other illegal immigrants that were on a cargo freighter that was supposed to take him and his grandfather to London, England where other relatives have gone. He is completely at Marcel’s mercy when the police come looking for him. Led by a sad-eyed detective in black, Inspector Monet, Marcel throws them off the scent. Taking pity on the boy, he hides Idrissa in his home and tries to figure out a way to get him to England. Finnish Director Aki Kaurismaki’s deadpan comedic delivery throughout the film somewhat takes away from the serious emotional intensity that would otherwise wash over the audience in this film. It has the trappings of a light-hearted fairy tale, but it doesn’t so much take away as add to the film’s not-so-obvious message that we are all capable of Marcel’s compassion and action. So why is it still so extraordinary?
Article by James Burns