As it’s often said among cinephiles, the Finnish director and master of deadpan Aki Kaurismäki makes the same movie every time: a special mix of deadpan acting, lovable (and usually lovelorn) working class protagonists, mild political commentary and rockabilly. That’s not entirely true: His last two films, 2002’s The Man Without a Past and 2006’s Lights in the Dusk, are, respectively, a chipper crowd-pleaser and a bleak neo-noir. But they’re similar enough that whenever he breaks through to the mainstream, as he did with The Man Without a Past, it’s less a testament to the film’s prowess than because that time the right people happened to be paying attention.
Kaurismäki must be aware of this, as Le Havre, his 16th feature in three decades, rocks two would-be major game changers. For one, it’s set not in Finland but in the titular lazy northern French port city. For another, it’s an emotional appeal for the notion that illegal immigrants are people, too. André Wilms plays Marcel Marx (note the surname), a sleepy, aging bohemian whose amblings run him afoul of Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), a young African boy trying to sneak to England to reunite with his mother. With little hesitation, Marx begins helping him, first by leaving him food, then by giving him shelter, then by getting his neighbors involved, all while evading a dogged inspector.
Kaurismäki would seem an odd fit for tract; his work tends to exist in a highly stylized vacuum, resisting real world impact. So, it’s no insult to say that Le Havre is just another Kaurismäki film. It’s not simply that the socio-political message has been organically blended into what is a charming light comedy. It’s that Kaurismäki is simply incapable of creating anything so blunt and artless as a message film. The reasons for helping Idrissa is simply because it’s the humanistic thing to do. The good vibes even extend to Little Bob (Roberto Piazza), an aging singer recruited for a benefit concert. Kaurismäki lets him play an entire song when most would have cut out after a verse. It’s just another way in which Le Havre, without ever mussing its hair or upsetting the deadpan fun, offers a testament to the warmth of people at their most wonderful.