Finnish-born director Aki Kaurismaki captures perfectly the droll French humor in his charmer, “Le Havre.” The Martha’s Vineyard Film Society will present the film, which has been nominated for a 2012 Best Foreign Film Oscar, on Saturday, Jan. 14, at the Katharine Cornell Theatre.
“Le Havre’s” central character, Marcel Marx (André Wilms), is proud, dry in outlook, deadpan and politically astute – a Frenchman with a very Gallic sense of humor, as his double-entendre last name suggests. The chain-smoking, elderly shoeshiner works in the Le Havre train station and lives with his frail, soon-to-be hospitalized wife Arletty (Kati Outinen) and his dog, Laika.
One of Marcel’s acquaintances and occasional customers is the dapper police inspector Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), always dressed in a black hat and black raincoat. M. Monet takes himself and his profession very seriously, but he finds pursuit of certain kinds of criminals, namely immigrants, distasteful.
As the northwestern Normandy port of entry for ships from all over the world, Le Havre receives cargo containers that sometimes hide illegal immigrants. After M. Monet arrives at the docks to oversee the opening of one of those suspect containers, a young African boy named Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) escapes.
As M. Monet leads the search to find Idrissa, Marcel first leaves food for the boy, then takes him under his wing. Soon the entire threadbare community gets involved. Director Kaurismaki sketches each of Marcel’s neighbors with a fine eye for detail. There is Marcel’s colleague Chang (Quoc-Dung Nguyen), who turns out not to be Chinese, despite his moniker, but a Vietnamese illegal with forged papers. Claire (Elina Salo) runs the bistro where Marcel stops for a drink and a chat about Arletty’s health.
Yvette (Evelyne Didi) runs the bakery where Marcel buys bread on the “time-payment” plan. And most hilarious is Little Bob (his actual name), the white-haired walking Elvis sight gag, who agrees to perform in a benefit rock ‘n roll concert for Idrissa — if his wife agrees to come back to him.
Life is hard for these blue-collar workers living on the margins of society, but they share a fierce sympathy for the destitute, desperate immigrants sneaking into France in hopes of a better life. The viewer must assume that the rest of the Africans in the container box Idrissa escaped from were sent back to their country of origin.
The charm of “Le Havre” comes in the way the director has taken the hard-boiled realism of directors like Jean-Pierre Melville and Robert Bresson who inspired him and softened their bleak outlook with a quintessentially French romanticism and drollness.
It may be hard at first for viewers unfamiliar with the French sense of humor to appreciate an early scene like the ridiculously formal exchange between Marcel and Arletty before he sits down to eat and she stands at attention next to the stove.
“Le Havre” ends with a reversal that more cynical viewers may find hard to accept, but Mr. Kaurismaki knows his characters and his culture. His conclusion turns this activist director’s film into a fable that rewards kindness and progressive politics. Conservative viewers who oppose immigration reform could learn a lesson from “Le Havre.”
“Le Havre,” Saturday, Jan. 14, 7:30 pm, Katharine Cornell Theatre, Vineyard Haven. $8; $5 members. Doors open at 7 pm. For more information, see mvfilmsociety.com.
Brooks Robards of Oak Bluffs and Northampton is a regular contributor to The Times.