Le Havre

(2011)
I tend to like French films. I don’t like them all – no one does, and for that matter no one likes every American movie – but at least the ones I see tend to involve themselves more with characters and emotions than plots. A steady diet of that might prove tiresome, but an occasional sampling can cleanse the visual palate (and mine was in need of some thorough scrubbing after suffering through Pac Rim). Le Havre is chiefly set in the port city that shares its name, and follows one Marcel Marx (Andre Wilms), a middle-aged shoeshine who arranges his day around the coming and going of commuter trains so he can maximize his customer base; after the last nightly train has arrived, he stops off at the café for a glass of wine and then home to his wife Arletty (Kati Outinen). One day, however, he comes across an escaped illegal immigrant from Gabon, Idrissa (Blondin Miguel); the young black boy stands out like a sore thumb in Le Havre, and Marcel impulsively decides to help the boy, even though the police are looking for him. Most of the rest of the film consists of Marcel trying to reunite the boy with his family in England, hiding the boy from the police, and relying on his wide network of friends in town to help him with both tasks. But this is no action film. The people in this movie are all shopkeepers and housewives, filled with their own problems, and react like normal people would. There’s no tense standoff – a little bit, maybe, at the end, when the police close in on the boy, but most of the film is a relaxed affair, with Marcel doing what he can between shoeshine jobs and his long-time friends helping him without really breaking their daily routines very much. There’s also a lot of staring off into space and smoking, but I expect that from French films. Andre Wilms is terrific here, delivering a pleasantly subtle performance. We like Marcel at once, and the more time we spend with him, the deeper that bond becomes. It’s easy to understand why characters who chide him a little at the start of the film – he’s a bit of a moocher – rally around him quickly once he decides to stick his neck out for the boy. I was impressed with most of the rest of the cast, particularly with Inspector Monet (Jean-Pierre Darrousin), who delivers a finely tuned performance. The boy Idrissa, Blondin Miguel, is a little too blank and lifeless for my tastes, but in a movie where so much of the cast is so laid back, it’s a lesser quibble. Le Havre feels like it was shot in the early Sixties – not only the bright colors, but no one has a cell phone, few of these people even have cars, and their lives seem to be simpler and certainly more relaxed. I’m guessing this warm, enjoyable film wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea – you’d sort of have to at least be inclined to like the French, which many Americans aren’t –but I found it engaging and refreshing. October 21, 2013