Something a little bit miraculous happens while you watch Aki Kaurismaki’s Le Havre. The film is effortlessly engrossing without ever hitting the marks one might expect in a film about such emotive subject matter. In the eponymous French port, a defeated writer, Marcel Marx (André Wilms), now eking out a living shining shoes, takes in a Gabonese child fleeing the immigration authorities, and goes to great lengths to ensure the child’s safety.
There is plenty of scope here for histrionics. Marcel’s wife is terminally ill but doesn’t want him to find out: his doting obliviousness sets us up for the inevitable crushing blow when he finds out the truth; the central conceit is of illegal immigrants in shipping containers: a boy, Idrissa, makes a run for it, and is sheltered by Marcel Marx, assisted by the local shopkeepers; a dour detective is on the trail. None of these things build to the emotional or suspenseful climaxes one might expect. When Marcel has to raise €3000 to buy passage across the English Channel for Idrissa, he organizes a charity concert, but he has to persuade Little Bob to come out of retirement and put his band back together. This all takes place and is resolved in a few minutes of screen time. It is suggested that a large crowd shows up, but we never see them. We hear appreciative cheers as Bob rocks out, but the crowd, the mass, is always elided in a film that shows how the collective work of a community relies upon wholly individual actions.
Kaurismaki doesn’t just observe Le Havre: he transforms it with an understated but utterly precise colour palette that romanticizes the place without resorting to any of the soft-focus distortions that might usually be required to effect such a gloss. The miracle, then, is that this understatement, under-acting and generously positive outcomes for everyone concerned produce such a wholly adorable film; even the sudden turnaround in fortunes at the end doesn’t seem cloying or contrived, because it’s all part of the fabric of the film, which strikes up a perfectly complementary aesthetic for each of its components – I swear Kaurismaki has managed to make his dialogue set the slow pulse of the editing, or his actors’ performances match the wallpaper. His mise-en-scene is fully realized, his world distinctive without being shut off from reality. Inside the rather grey town that we see in the opening shots, Kaurismaki carves out a small haven of colour and character, to the point where Marcel matches the decor of his home.
This is not just about a director exerting his fussy particularities on a location, but the stylistic consolidation of the character’s almost unwitting sense of belonging to this place. At some points I nearly fell for the interpretation that all of this goodness, emphasised by the outwardly expressive, empathetic relationship the protagonists have even with their own walls and floors, might just be Marcel’s deludedly optimistic imaginings, or that the sunny hopefulness of the film (which borders on a cross between In This World and Balamory) is a deliberate incongruity designed satirically to remind us that the world is never like this, and people are never this unquestionably good. But I don’t think that’s what Kaurismaki is about. Goodness gradually seeps into the fabric of the film and colours it, because being “good”, i.e. helping others out of a bad situation is not to be thought of as any kind of moral crisis or dilemma: Marcel’s problems are all the practicalities of shielding Idrissa from the law, not from agonising over the ethics of the issue. When we think of illegal immigration as a “complex problem”, the end product of a nexus of geopolitical manoeuvres that dispossess and displace those at the bottom of the chain, we obfuscate the needs of the people caught up in the system. Kaurismaki spells out, in vivid tones and straightforward dramatic beats, the simple truth that being good is not such a big deal.