Two shoeshiners, one French (André Wilms), the other a Vietnamese pretending to be Chinese (Quoc Dung Nguyen), stand together, scanning the passage of feet along the station floor, seeking to ply their trade. A man, his mouth like a hatchet wound, his hand cuffed to a suitcase, presents his right loafer for service, but soon he’s spotted by some other, equally suspicious-looking men. He runs, they chase, there’s gunfire. Another one bites the dust. The shoeshiners don’t even sigh. Clearly, it’s a dangerous world, one fraught with real, nasty, morally repugnant crimes... as well as crimes of a far more ambiguous nature.
Marcel Marx, the French shoeshiner, has been around; he once was a bohemian in Paris, or so he says, but now ekes out a humble but contented existence and comes home every night to a devoted wife and a very cute dog. Soon the wife will be hospitalized with cancer and in her place will appear an African boy named Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), whose clandestine journey by shipping container to the UK got interrupted and is now on the run in this forgotten French port city. Marcel can do nothing about his beloved’s illness but at least he can try to help the boy from harm’s way and secure his safe passage to London, where his mom works illegally in a Chinese laundry (but at least she works). Steering clear of the authorities, the enigmatic and ever-present Inspector Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) especially, and shelling out for human smuggling costs won’t be easy, but our aging hero is determined and, just as importantly, unafraid to ask for help. “I’m not alone,” says Marcel. “I have friends.”
In his return to France (he made La Vie de Bohème there in 1992), Finnish wrier/director Aki Kaurismäki didn’t come alone either; he brought along Kati Outinen, star of eight previous Kaurismäkis and thus a sort of talisman, to play Marcel’s dear Arletty (named after the star of France’s beloved Les enfants du paradis), and bring a boldness and assurance to the film’s more problematic role. (Arletty’s wifely devotion, her refusal to even admit that she’s dying so that she can keep ironing Marcel’s clothes, cooking Marcel’s meals and managing Marcel’s paltry finances for as long as possible, can be a little hard to take; Le Havre’s Marxist cred is pretty impeccable, its feminist cred not so much.)
Both a love letter to French cinema and a letter bomb addressed to France’s xenophobic immigration policy makers, Le Havre, named for the Normandy city in which it’s set (which also happens to be the penultimate stop made by the sailors in Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante), brings Kaurismäki’s ongoing exploration of working class solidarity back to foreign shores, resulting in one of his finest, most affectionate, and probably most crowd-pleasing films. To be sure, Le Havre feels like a summation rather than any sort of renovation of Kaurismäki’s 30-year career, examining familiar themes and tropes—yep, there’s a rock and roll show, this one featuring the vocal stylings of Little Bob—and firmly grounding itself in that distinctive deadpan-melodrama, Bresson-does-Buster Keaton approach that filmgoers will recognize as Kaurismäki’s trademark. Yet for all that, the film feels very much alive, engaged and enraged, full of ragged but persistent hope, less resting on laurels than shaking them back to life. And in the truly remarkable scenes that find Kaurismäki's camera calmly fixing itself upon the faces of the (often real-life) undocumented foreigners, imposing nothing, we sense that no matter how persistently mannered this filmmaker's approach may be, he remains alert to the world, and allows his subjects their dignity, their chance to simply be present for his camera and for all of us around the world watching their faces, and hopefully wondering about their fate.