Le Havre (2011)

Set in the port city of Le Havre, France, this Cannes FIPRESCI Award winner and Nominee for Palme d’Or tells a heartwarming story of human compassion, resilience, and the power of community

3/10/20245 min read

André Wilms and Blondin Miguel in Le Havre
André Wilms and Blondin Miguel in Le Havre

French, 93 minutes, 2011

Director: Aki Kaurismaki

Cast: André Wilms, Kati Outinen, Jean- Pierre Darroussin, Blondin Miguel, Elina Salo

Awards: Won, FIPRESCI Prize and Prize of Ecumenical Jury-Special Mention and Nominated for Palme d’Or, Cannes Film Festival, 2011; Won Golden Hugo, Best International feature, Chicago International Film festival, 2011; Nominee Best Foreign Language Film, Czech Lions, 2013 and Critics Choice Awards, 2012; Nominee Golden Frog, Camerimage (Cinematography Awards held at Torun, Poland every year in November), 2011; Nominated for 4 European Film Awards and Won 4 Jussi (Finland’s annual film Awards) Awards including Best Film and Best Direction

The film follows the life of Marcel Marx (André Wilms) a shoe shiner who lives with his wife Arletty (Kati Outinen) and a dog, Laika, in the port city of Le Havre. Like in his other films, in this film too the lead characters are poor albeit in France this time and not in Finland. Marcel's life takes an unexpected turn when he encounters an underage African refugee, Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), who is escaping cops and immigration authorities. Marcel leaves some food and money for Idrissa at the port steps where he had spotted him.

Marcel’s wife Arletty falls ill and he along with his neighbor Yvette (Evelyne Didi) take her to hospital at night. At hospital she is diagnosed with cancer and not expected to live much. She pleads doctor to not to tell Marcel. The doctor agrees reluctantly. Idrissa accidently comes to his house and rests in the small out-house made for the dog. Marcel takes him inside, feeds him and asks him to rest. With Arletty in hospital and Marcel going out every day to earn his living, Idrissa starts looking after house, pressing Marcel’s clothes, polishing his shoes at night and washing dishes. Idrissa, we learn, comes from a learned family.

Suddenly, out of compassion or for some unknown reason, his neighbours start helping him. A criminal investigator, Monet (Jean- Pierre Darroussin) is observing Marcel and slowly becomes sympathetic towards him. At home Marcel once asks Idrissa about how he landed up there at Le Havre. The questioning reveals that he came with his grandfather, who, Marcel traces, is now put up in a refugee camp in Calais. Idrissa wants to go to London where his mother is working, also as an illegal immigrant. Determined to help the boy reunite with his mother, Marcel embarks on a mission to protect Idrissa from the immigration authorities. At hospital, Arletty asks Marcel not to come for two weeks till the treatment is finished because it won’t be good for her. She also asks him to get a certain yellow dress when he comes back. Marcel is surprised but agrees.

Marcel goes to Calais and meets boy’s grandfather. The grandfather tells Idrissa’s mother’s address and extracts promise from Marcel to send the kid to London. Meanwhile, the case of missing boy makes headlines in the town’s newspaper and superiors want the boy to be found as soon as possible. Monet is summoned and asked to find the boy as he is their best investigator. Monet keeps observing Marcel’s movements. Marcel contacts a local fisherman and learns that it would cost around 3000 Euros to send Idrissa to London. This is huge money for any of the townsfolk to spare. To raise the money, the bar owner (Elina Salo) suggests they arrange a charity concert with lead singer as Little Bob (Roberto Piazza as Himself). The problem is Little Bob won’t sing till he meets Mimie (Myriam Piazza as herself), his girlfriend. Marcel meets Mimie and brokers a truce. The concert takes place and money is raised –just like that.

In the climax sequence the police party raids Marcel’s house but Marcel and the neighbours cleverly smuggle Idrissa out of locality- hidden in a vegetable cart. As Idrissa is being hidden in the ship’s hatch, police van reaches there with Monet accompanying them. Monet discovers that Idrissa is hiding in the ship but on seeing him he closes the door and sits on it. When a lower grade police officer, from the search party, asks him to get off the hatch door Monet asks him whether he doesn’t trust a senior police officer. The policeman retreats and the ship departs with boy hidden inside. Marcel offers an apology drink to Monet and both celebrate. Next day, as Marcel goes to hospital to see his wife he finds bed empty with the yellow dress parcel lying on bed which he had managed to send with Idrissa on the concert day. Thinking that his wife is no more he places flowers on the bed and visits doctor’s chamber. In chamber there is a surprise- Arletty is cured well and doctors are mightily surprised. Aki Kaurismaki seems to be very good at heart. He doesn’t like sad endings. He doesn’t want sad ending.

One of the film's greatest strengths lies in its ability to capture the essence of humanity amidst adversity. Kaurismäki masterfully portrays the struggles faced by marginalized individuals and the unwavering spirit of those who stand up for what is human. André Wilms delivers a nuanced and heartfelt portrayal of Marcel, effortlessly conveying the character's warmth, resilience, and a sense of justice. The chemistry between Wilms and young actor Blondin Miguel, who plays Idrissa, is palpable, creating a touching bond between their characters that resonates with the audience.

Beyond its captivating narrative and stellar performances, 'Le Havre' also addresses important social issues. The film sheds light on the struggles faced by refugees and the bureaucratic obstacles they encounter in their search for safety and a better life. Kaurismäki's subtle yet powerful commentary on these issues invites viewers to reflect on the treatment of marginalized communities and the importance of empathy and understanding.

The film's soundtrack as usual adds another layer of charm to the overall experience. The music perfectly complements the mood of each scene, further immersing the audience in the emotional journey of the characters. 'Le Havre' is a testament to the power of storytelling and its ability to shed light on the human condition. Through its captivating narrative, exceptional performances, and thought-provoking themes, the film leaves a lasting impact on its viewers.

About the director, Aki Kaurismaki

Born in April, 1957 in the town of Orimattila, Finland, Aki Kaurismaki graduated in media studies from University of Tampere and started working as a writer. His debut was with his brother, Mika Kaurismaki. Aki was the lead actor and co-screenwriter of the film, ‘The Liar’ directed by his brother in 1981.

Aki Kaurismaki’s directorial debut, ‘Crime and Punishment’, based on Dostoevsky’s famous novel, came in 1983 which was set in modern day Helsinki. It was followed by ‘Calamari Union’ (1985), ‘Shadows in Paradise’ (1986), ‘Hamlet Goes Business’ (1987) and ‘Ariel’ (1988) in quick succession. However, his next film, ‘Leningrad Cowboys Go America’, made in 1989, can be said as the film which gave him some recognition. The film is a road movie where a music band called ‘Leningrad Cowboys’ go to America gain success and fame.

He continued to write, direct and also edit many films after 1989 but his crowning glory came with the present film, made in 2002. The film was awarded ‘Grand Prix’, the second most prestigious award at the Cannes Film Festival, 2002. This film is regarded as second film in the “Finland Trilogy”, the other two being ‘Drifting Clouds’ (1996) and ‘Lights in the Dusk’ (2006). This film was also nominated for ‘Best Foreign Language Film’ at Academy Awards.

Present film is Aki Kaurismaki’s second French language film after La Vie de Bohemè, made in 1992. Earlier he wanted to make the film any port city in Italy or Spain but selected Le Havre over other cities because of its atmosphere and music scene.