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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Illustration for article titled A beloved Finnish filmmaker puts his warmhearted stamp on the immigrant experience

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: James Gray’s upcoming The Immigrant has us thinking about the immigrant experience and films that explore it.

Le Havre (2011)

In Le Havre, Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismäki turns the tricky topic of anti-immigrant sentiment in France into a warmhearted yarn with a subversive streak. Under Kaurismäki’s cinematic eye, the harbor town of the title is turned into a cozy village of narrow streets and colorful storefronts, where everyone still smokes inside and it’s still possible to buy things on store credit. There are only a few things that give Le Havre a definite place in time, including the one-time use of an old flip phone and a newspaper with the name “al-Qaeda” in the headline.


The subject of all the suspicion passing through this small harbor city is a young boy named Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), one of many African refugees found in a cargo container sent to Le Havre by accident. When the police open the container, the refugees are all wearing their nicest clothes and gaze back at the officers steadily, as the camera focuses on each person’s face in turn. A nod from Idrissa’s grandfather, Mahamat Saleh (Umban U’kset), gives Idrissa the signal to escape before he can be brought to a refugee camp along with the others. The hope is that Idrissa can find his way to London to be with his mother before the police deport him. “Armed and dangerous?” the headlines scream.

Although Idrissa’s situation is urgent, the pace of Le Havre is languid, and because Kaurismäki is a humanist, most of his characters are well meaning, or at least fairly harmless. Idrissa’s main champion is Marcel (André Wilms), a former bohemian who shines shoes where and when he can. Business is bad, and his beloved wife, Arletty (Kati Outinen), is in the hospital, but when he discovers Idrissa hiding in the waters by the harbor, Marcel goes above and beyond to help the youngster get to London. Marcel’s friends and neighbors join in without question; this slice of the city would rather turn to each other than strangers or the police.

There’s no weighty exposition or big teachable moment, but the political underpinnings are unmistakable. Marcel and his friend Chang (Quoc-Dung Nguyen) watch news footage of police demolishing refugee camps before the conversation turns to Idrissa’s dilemma. “It’s hard to say, since I don’t exist,” Chang says. He shows Marcel his immigration papers, explaining that he’s not even Chinese. “You can call me Chang, I’m used to it. The Mediterranean has more birth certificates than fish. It’s harder to deport a nameless person.”

Despite these moments of seriousness, Le Havre is quietly droll. There’s a particularly delightful escape sequence that’s so chill it’s practically in slow motion. The benefit concert held for Idrissa’s escape is performed by aging rockabilly dudes led by the magnificently coiffed Little Bob. Hospital visitors read short stories by Kafka aloud to Arletty until she dozes off. Outinen, known for her work in Kaurismäki films like Drifting Clouds, The Match Factory Girl, and The Man Without A Past, looks like a sad, clear-eyed doll in girlish frocks. Wilms, who co-starred in Kaurismäki’s La Vie De Bohème, has a hangdog, nicotine-stained look from years of trying to make it as an artist and failing. Miguel is charming and mature; he has a firm handshake, and when Marcel asks him to stop saying “sir,” he replies, “Oui, mon general.”


Kaurismäki’s use of warm blues and mustard yellows and the texture of 35mm film feel homey and safe. Every shot and gesture are deliberate and careful, held just a beat or two longer than necessary, as if to fully emphasize each character’s humanity. Much like the minimalist aesthetic, it gives the film room to breathe. Kaurismäki’s generous outlook on society is one we could all stand to emulate.

Availability: Le Havre is available on Criterion Blu-ray and DVD (which can be obtained from Netflix), to rent or purchase through Amazon Instant Video or iTunes, and to stream on Hulu Plus.

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