When Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) first looks out from a shipping container in Le Havre, he pauses. He and his fellow travelers have arrived from Gabon, and the camera first takes the view of a police inspector, Henri Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), who stands at the opening alongside a squad of uniformed officers. A series of shots show the visitors’ faces, shadowed, exhausted, and maybe a little hopeful too. One by one, the frame holds on men looking caught, women holding babies, silent and still. And then, Idrissa moves: he stands and runs past the cops. One raises his weapon, and Monet stays his arm as the shot cuts to a shot of the boy running to the camera and past it, leaving only a long image of the men as silhouettes, narrowly framed by shipping containers. “Are you mad?” Monet asks, “It’s a child.”
This brief early scene in Le Havre lays out a series of abiding tensions in miniature, between generations, races, nations, and classes. The chance Idrissa takes is of a piece with those taken by his fellow Gabonese: they’ve come in search of new lives, facing unfathomable risks, at once uncertain and resolute. The boy makes his way to the water, where he hides beneath a pier, standing in water, where he’s discovered by a shoeshiner, Marcel (André Wilms). “Is this London”? Idrissa asks. Seeing how utterly lost the child is, Marcel, a former writer, is intrigued, and offers him his lunch. At this moment, the inspector happens by. Tasked by his superiors to track down the escapee, as the story makes the department look bad in local news headlines, he’s on the hunt. Marcel dissembles, the boy escapes again, and Monet goes on his way.
As Marcel takes note of TV reports showing abuses of immigrants and the destruction of refugee camps by authorities, he’s reminded of his meeting with Idrissa. He takes the boy in, their relationship partly accidental and partly a matter of principle. Not unlike Monet, Marcel feels a sense of moral obligation to the child, at first out of an abstract notion of his age and perhaps his poverty, and increasingly, as he comes to see similarities in their situations. These are not material or even very obvious, but instead somatic, emotional, and spiritual. As the man and boy find themselves reflected in one another, Aki Kaurismäki’s film turns into something like a fable, instructive and also fanciful, emblematic and charming.
On its face, Marcel’s situation is utterly unlike the boy he brings into his home. He and his wife Arletty (Kati Outinen, the Finnish filmmaker’s longtime muse and collaborator) have lived forever in a comforting routine: she stays home, she cooks, cleans, and keeps order, and he plays ventures forth, whether in his writing or in his sidewalk encounters as a shoeshiner, bringing home money and enjoying the care that she takes of him. When Arletty is diagnosed with cancer, not only does she not tell her husband how serious her condition might be, but she also tells him not to come visit her in the hospital. Angelic on her white bed pillow, she insists that she wants only to be alone, knowing that even contemplating drastic change — and her loss — would be devastating for Marcel. “There’s always hope,” her doctor tells her, even as his face suggests that in this case, that hope is slim.
While he stays away from her bedside, Marcel engages with his guest’s situation, seeking out Idrissa’s grandfather in hopes of finding the boy a safe place to live. While he ventures out, the boys stays inside, washing dishes and shining shoes Marcel has brought home in exchange for the haven he’s provided. As Monet is still on the prowl, Marcel occasionally enlists the help of neighbors in hiding the boy. None has a particular stake in the undertaking, yet all agree, their efforts transforming them from a group of individuals who live in the same block to a community.
As this story of evolving trust and secrets parallels that of Arletty’s illness — and her now mostly off-screen relationship with Marcel — Le Havre reflects the essential simplicity of the choices made in its simple-seeming camera set-ups. The compositions are both stark and emotionally dense, shots and reverse shots that frame faces like portraits, dialogue that’s straightforward, if not downright awkward. Minimalist but also plainly artful, ingenuous and profound, the movie doesn’t quite escape the reductions of individuals to types that it clearly critiques. But even as Idrissa remains a cipher, this too is of a piece with Le Havre‘s politics: Marcel never quite sees beyond his world, whether with regard to Arletty’s experience or Idrissa’s.