7:25:13 Le Havre by Kaurismaki

I watched Le Havre (2011) by Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki, not sure what to expect. The opening scene has an aging protagonist, Marcel Marx, plying his trade as a bootblack where ship passengers arrive. Most are wearing tennis shoes, not leather ones that need polishing. It's obvious Marcel has meager income.

Then a well-dressed, but shifty, man with black leather shoes sits down for a shine. Nearby, two menacing gangster types appear.

The shoeshine completed, Marcel's customer pays and walks off-camera. A volley of bullets is heard. Marcel turns to his Vietnamese companion and says, "Luckily, he had time to pay." That is the classic Kaurismaki deadpan humor I recognize from earlier films.

[Le Havre by Kaurismaki]

But deadpan humor is not where Le Havre goes. Set in the eponymous French port city, the film next introduces complications, one after another, seemingly portending nothing but tragic outcomes. (Even Marcel dog's name--Laika--suggests the doom of the first earthling in outer space.)

At the port, a dock security guard hears a baby crying inside a ship container. Police arrive, the container is opened and they discover a group of stowaways, illegal African refugees. One of them, the youth Idrissa, takes off.

Idrissa on the lam, police in pursuit, an anonymous telephone informer who sees Idrissa (played by an much older Jean-Pierre Leaud of the historic Truffaut films). Capture seems imminent, but in an act of compassion, Marcel takes in Idrissa.

Then Marcel, whose respite from a difficult life is little more than a baguette and occasional glass of wine, is hit with the unthinkable. His wife has a medical emergency and goes to the hospital.

Soon Marcel can't even comfort his wife, for her treatment requires isolation.

Marcel throws himself back into giving Idrissa shelter.

Amazingly, the neighborhood rallies with Marcel in solidarity.

Marcel, selflessly, goes about doing what needs doing.

Not to spoil the ending for anybody, but Marcel's earning karma appears to make good things happen. An upbeat affirmation of life's possibility. Marcel accepts the Other, the dispossessed in the person of Idrissa, and this makes him whole.

Kaurismaki has said the issue of illegal immigration from Africa into Europe is far bigger than one film. It has no simple solution, so artist Kaurismaki instinctively avoids anything resembling a polemic. No, Le Havre is about a personal sense of ethics above politics. Marcel Marx has nothing less than the character of an Oskar Schindler.

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The Cat at Light's End

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