For Carl Dreyer, to film a miracle took a single shot; for Bruno Dumont, a whole film. In Le Havre, Aki Kaurismäki needs four shots to capture his—and what an ordinary event it is! What can we say about a film that makes a miracle seem like the most common thing in the world? Or, more importantly, what can a miracle that seems like the most common thing in the world say to us? No more or less than this: that there’s still a chance.
Of all the immigration films this year, and there are many, ranging from brilliant (Low Life, one of the New York Film Festival’s most egregious omissions this year) to ludicrous (The Invader), Le Havre is certainly the most openly optimistic, a fact that, in the face of the world, seems dishonest until one realizes that what Kaurismäki has made here is a children’s film. This is in no way a slight, as anyone who’s read André Bazin thoughts on The Red Balloon should understand. The last decade has seen a false revolution where Pixar has purportedly achieved the consistent alchemy of making children’s movies that are smart enough for adults to enjoy. Such a claim ignores the reality of Pixar’s films, which in their worldview show absolutely nothing of a child’s mind; they simply run their cynicism around the back door, sneaking it in behind a wall of products and anthropomorphism. (Ratatouille remains the closest they’ve come to making a genuine children’s film.) La Havre, the tale of a community that comes together to shelter a young African immigrant from deportation, has no reason to hide its cynicism, because it has none to begin with. Its view is that of a child who hasn’t yet been broken to accept a world of limited possibilities, which is another way of saying that its view is revolutionary.
Yet the view of a child doesn’t preclude the acknowledgment of evil, or of pettiness, as Kaurismäki shows in the opening scene in which a rich gangster is gunned down after receiving a shoeshine from the hero, Marcel Marx (André Wilms), whose only reply is, “Luckily he had time to pay.” Marx’s response is a counterweight to the exemplary compassion he shows for the young boy Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) over the rest of the film, these two opposing sentiments forming the dialectic of Kaurismäki’s morality, a humanism that acknowledges the overwhelming scope of the world (gangsters will be killed, a fact beyond one’s control, which doesn’t mean that one should shed false tears) while still believing that one must absolutely affect all the positive change that one can.
Kaurismäki’s style throughout remains, as ever, resolutely direct in its clean lines and saturated color. This world is one presented in simple gestures (a glance at a gold watch, the placement of a bag of sandwiches, a brief pause to decide which direction to run, a deep breath of fresh ocean air) that are as clear as a child’s belief in what he sees. Le Havre’s mise-en-scène is not an argument for naïvete, but for an engagement of the world free from a consuming skepticism: Only if we view the world as it is—which Idrissa does when he calmly stares at the inspector, played by Jean-Pierre Darroussin, from the hold of a ship, his life hanging on their shared look—can we achieve a view that will allow us to act positively, to escape easy self-pity. In that moment, the inspector, Monet, does just this, as he recognizes what a clear view allows him to see. His sudden decision to do what is just based on only a boy’s look is all the evidence one needs to confirm the political capacity of the cinema. Here, in a film whose central couple (Marcel’s wife is named Arletty) combines two of the major figures of French resistance in the 20th century (Children of Paradise and Karl Marx), Kaurismäki has fashioned a tale of resistance for the 21st century, one that works both internally and in its childlike commitment to the idea at hand at the expense of any compromise, a conviction that those on the side of justice around the world today would do well to emulate.
In the end, such conviction manifests itself as the film’s common miracle, a movement from death to life in four shots: a package of clothes on a hospital bad, a husband’s worried face, the apology of two doctors, the living wife. If Idrissa’s escape confirmed the political capacity of cinema, then here is its human capacity: Only in the movies could such a moment be so mundane. Arletty’s equally mundane response upon arriving home (“I’ll make dinner right away!”) is, in its gratingly old-fashioned domesticity, Kaurismäki’s only moment of sadness, the slight creeping in of a doubt that perhaps such hope for the world is lost to history. But we shouldn’t worry too much, because every time Le Havre screens, this past is brought into the present.