Le Havre is pretty as a picture, shallow as a shower
Art-house cinema can be a funny thing; it can be a beautiful mess of thought-provoking chaos, like Lars von Trier’s Melancholia or it can be a gorgeous but boring exploration of what makes us human, like Terence Malick’s Tree of Life. Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre, a contemporary of those two well-regarded films, falls firmly in the second category. The premise of this piece that Kaurismäki has also written is promising enough, yet how he follows through renders it as exciting as watching grass grow in a lengthy series of brief scenes.
Set in the Normandy port city of Le Havre, Marcel Marx (André Wilms), an elderly street shoe shiner happens across a young Gabonese boy (Blondin Miguel) who finds himself stranded in France en route to his mother in London. With the police on the search for this illegal refugee and his wife (Kati Outinen) battling cancer, Marcel makes it his mission to help the boy reach London. This is all laid out in meticulously framed scenes and cool tones that lend an air of the early 70s to this modern-day work. It’s certainly stylish and it has a message about immigration, even if a simplistic one, but the problem is how shallow it is. There’s a fair share of humour involved in the telling of this story, but insight is noticeably left off the menu.
The major problem here is that the scenes are remarkably short. They look great, but convey so little. The plot is uncomplicated, but also unsatisfying. Little is ever truly revealed about the characters and the moment a conversation begins to sprout a green shoot of interest, it cuts off to the next scene’s brief exchange. Short, often awkward discussions between characters may advance the plot (slowly), but it fails to make any of it compelling. Wilms does well to command attention by his presence and the sullen face of Miguel garners the requisite amount of sympathy, so the problem isn’t with casting (though some of the support, especially Jean-Pierre Léaud, fumble through their scenes). The issue is that when any of the performers begin to gain some momentum, they’re instantly cut off at the knees. In absence of any real drama, due to the police’s rather lackadaisical approach to the matter, means the film casually drifts to its expected conclusion. Of course, this drab journey is at least aesthetically pleasing, but why Kaurismäki couldn’t ensure that his screenplay was as interesting as his style is anyone’s guess. That there is nothing particularly clever about Le Havre can be forgiven, but that it is so superficial and tedious cannot.
There’s little doubt all of the above will, for some reason or another, go down well with the art-house lovers. It would be a charming story if the characters were given a chance to connect with the audience, but nothing beyond the surface is ever scratched. For someone who loves enjoyable, engrossing entertainment, be it an artsy film or a shiny blockbuster, Le Havre simply lacks the depth and creativity to merit widespread recommendation. 5/10