Thursday, September 29, 2011

NYFF 2011: Le Havre (2011)

"Miracles do happen."
"Not in my neighborhood."

It's technically accurate but dangerous to step out of the first film you see at the New York Film Festival and declare it to be the best one you've seen at the festival. Aki Kaurismaki's Le Havre struck all the right notes for me to kick off a couple weeks of viewing movies: a beautiful, funny, quirky, heart-breaking and uplifting film with solid arthouse and commercial appeal.

André Wilms is Marcel Marx, a roguish and beleaguered but never defeated shoe shiner in the French port city of Le Havre. He works, he drinks in a bar, he goes home to wife ailing Arletty (Kati Outinen, quietly brilliant) and faithful dog Laika, goes to bed, and the whole routine begins again the next morning. Two events in rapid succession, however, dramatically change the routine: Arletty fails ill and keeps her almost fatal condition secret from Marcel, who during her absence has taken in Idrissa, a runaway boy smuggled into France from Africa.

Marcel's plans to keep the boy hidden from immigration run him afoul of the Javert-esque Inspector Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) but draws together his neighborhood in a community scheme to help Idrissa escape to London to meet his mother. Marcel is drawn into an elaborate chain of interlocking complications—from visiting the black boy's grandfather in prison (by claiming he's his albino brother) to patching up the love problems of a neighborhood rock 'n' roller Little Bob (to convince him to put on a benefit concert to fund smuggling Idrissa to the UK).

Le Havre is a quiet and deliberate picture: nothing loud and splashy here except the raucous Little Bob rock concert. Kaurismaki's palette reflects the tone: the rundown corners of Le Havre and Calais are toned in quiet splashes of color, not so much muted as faded. Le Havre, in nearly still-life scenes, sparkles, but very quietly—much like the lives of its wonderful supporting characters.

It's all very light but not light-weight, and any conveniences of plot can easily be forgiven for the discovery of hidden joy in the smallest parts of the run-down community. Le Havre won't capture the following of more splashy and whimsical French imports to the US like Amélie, but it shares its buoyant good cheer and quiet happiness. Miracles do happen, sometimes right in your own neighborhood.

Le Havre opens at the New York Film Festival on October 2, and in limited release in the US on October 21.

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