I recently watched Aki Kaurismäki’s excellent “Proletariat Trilogy” in preparation for Cannes, and the director’s incredible feel for narrative gaps, emotional POV’s, and decisive pacing made me realize there was a whole other dimension to his work than the deadpan surface. With this in mind, Kaurismäki’s newest film, Le Havre, seems a dim reflection of more substantial earlier work, another slow swing at an already exploded piñata. Set in the port district of Le Havre in Normandy, France, Kaurismäki’s film examines the daily routine of Marcel Marx (André Wilms), an elderly ex-writer who now shines shoes to get by. His wife, Arletty (Kati Outinen), exists in a suspended state, keeling over from intense stomach pain only after cooking Marcel dinner. The banality of Kaurismäki’s comedy is readily apparent as Arletty watches from afar as Marcel eat alone.
Immigration politics are at the forefront of Le Havre: a Vietnamese immigrant (Quoc Dung Nguyen) also shines shoes, television and radio broadcasts flood the frame with the sound and fury of angry protests, and a young boy named Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) smuggled into France from Africa becomes the central symbol. While Kaurismäki retains the sense of color, shadow, and tone that infuses his previous work, there seems to be a turn toward overt sentimentality in Le Havre. The relationship between Marcel and Idrissa develops from mutual compassion, but the emotional connection unfolds in familiarly broad strokes. Idrissa discovers an American rock record, Marcel travels out of town to locate the boy’s grandfather, and every character partakes in a final ruse alluding to the unification of many cultures. Everything is so on the nose, except when Kaurismäki spends lengthy amounts of time on strangely tangential moments in the story. The multiple-minute sequence of a charity rock concert is indicative of Kaurismäki’s meandering attention span.