Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki has largely been making variations on the same movie for more than three decades. (With some exceptions: most notably, 1990’s The Match Factory Girl, an utterly chilling, Medea-like story of revenge, and not coincidentally, one of his strongest effects by far.) His usual work features loveable, lovelorn underclass characters, shaggy-dog romanticism, an eclectic soundtrack, mild-to-frisky political overtones, crazy hairdos, and so on. Several great auteurs, Yasujiro Ozu among them, have reworked the same themes with the same principal cast members, and the little differences between a creator’s films can be profound—as can their commonalities. But Kaurismäki has a narrow vision, disarming and sweet, yet utterly predictable, and there’s little distinction between the films he’s directing today and the films he directed 30 years ago. They have the wrong kind of timelessness.
When Le Havre premièred at Cannes earlier this year, it won Kaurismäki more praise than anything he’s done in the last 20 years, save 2002’s The Man Without A Past, but it’s mostly boilerplate, feeding the hot-button topic of illegal immigration through the Kaurismäki-o-matic. The wisp of a plot involves a shoeshine man (André Wilms) in a French port city in Normandy who harbors an African boy (Blondin Miguel) illegally until he can secure passage to England, where the boy’s mother awaits. Wilms and his wife (Kati Outinen) lead a simple yet dignified life together in a small one-room house, yet they risk their thin slice of happiness on helping the boy. Jean-Pierre Darroussin plays the relentless inspector who suspects Wilms right away, but finds him a wilier adversary than expected.
Kaurismäki turns the portside setting into an enchanting place, humble in appearance but big in spirit, with the proprietors of the local bar, bakery, and fruit stand warmly supporting a common cause. He shows a less delicate touch in handling the politics of immigration, reducing the African boy to a mere totem among his usual cast of quirky eccentrics. Minor pleasures abound in Le Havre, especially in the effortless chemistry and affection between longtime Kaurismäki favorites Wilms and Outinen, and in the film’s resonant sense of community. It’s a pleasing, well-proportioned trifle, but that doesn’t seem like enough.