The Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki has made some odd and unsettling films (Leningrad Cowboys Go America, The Match Factory Girl), but the writer-director's latest Le Havre is a surprisingly sweet fable.
The story unfolds over a few days in the titular French port city. There, an African boy, Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), en route to his mother in London via a shipping container, escapes from the police and is discovered by an elderly shoe-shiner named Marcel (André Wilms). With the help of Marcel's working-class community — a colorful group ranging from a grocer to an aging rocker — Marcels works to get Idrissa on his way, while avoiding the law.
The core material is bleak — the plight of illegal immigrants who risk their lives to immigrate to Europe, and the unwelcome reception they receive — and thus Kaurismäki's upbeat treatment of it is as pretty and unreal as any other fairy tale. The film is beautiful, with gorgeous light and rich colors, and the sets and costumes give it a cozy vintage air, perhaps suggesting a simpler, kinder time.
Kaurismäki's account is so saturated with goodwill that the film's most jarring moments are when characters behave better than expected. In upending our expectations, Kaurismäki needles us with the ugly truth. Ultimately, the characters still face uncertainty and lives marked by hardship. But who doesn't need a respite from that, even for an hour or two?