I’ve got a short post on ESPN.com today for Insiders, covering the top age-25 players in MLB.
I only found Le Havre, a 2011 French-language film from Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki, because it appeared on Roger Ebert’s list of his top 20 films of that year, of which I’ve now seen nine and will eventually see at least one more. Ebert noted the film’s major flaw, an absurd ending that bears no connection to the remainder of the film, as if it were a trifle (calling it “certainly satisfying”), but that plot twist took a film that danced on the edge of cute right over into fairy-tale twee.
Le Havre, no relation to the board game and app of the same name, tells the story of an aging French shoe-shiner, Marcel Marx, who discovers an 11-year-old African refugee, Idrissa, hiding in the waters of the city’s harbor. The police are engaged in a comical manhunt for this harmless child, and Marcel, now alone in his house as his wife is in the hospital with a serious illness, decides to take Idrissa in and protect him from the authorities, out of what I presume is pity or empathy for the boy’s plight. Marcel’s neighbors just barely tolerate him at the film’s beginning, but between his wife’s poor health and his caper with Idrissa, the neighbors conspire with Marcel to hide the boy and eventually to smuggle him out of the country to his ultimate destination, London. Meanwhile, Marcel’s wife, Arletty, won’t allow anyone to tell him how serious her condition is, with the doctor originally saying there’s no hope but a miracle, because Marcel is just a child in a man’s body.
Kaurismäki’s directorial style provokes discomfort through lingering shots of expressionless faces, often staring at or just past the camera, as well as closeups that get a little too close. The plot couldn’t be any simpler, and no characters beyond Marcel get any kind of deeper development; even Idrissa is shown to be a perfectly polite and articulate Gabonese boy who speaks French fluently and whose only real flaw is that he doesn’t like to stay shut up in Marcel’s house all day, risking detection and capture. The one neighbor who doesn’t play along, reporting Idrissa’s whereabouts three times to the police, never gets a name, much less a motivation – racism? xenophobia? general douchebaggery? – for his betrayal of Marcel’s secret. Arletty, played quite obviously by a non-native speaker of French (the Finnish actress Kati Outinene, whose French is proper but toneless with an unnatural rhythm), seems to have no purpose in life other than to play housewife to Marcel, and gives no appearance of being happy or in love with him, beyond being terrified that he’ll be unable to cope without her.
The film does boast some dry humor, as well as an absurd subplot involving the musician “Little Bob” (played by Italian blues-rock singer Roberto Piazza), while Jean-Pierre Darroussin offers subtle homages to Inspector Clouseau in his performance as Inspector Monet, hot (or tepid) on the trail of Idrissa. But the film, while cute for its amusing parts, isn’t funny enough to be a straight comedy, and isn’t serious enough to have a point beyond, well, be kind to the less fortunate, there but for the grace of God, and so on. Had the film ended on a less incongruous note, it might have felt like a fable, cute and funny but with a greater theme that forgives its cuteness. Instead, it ends with nonsense, an ending that would feel tacked-on if it wasn’t dominated by a greater feeling of falseness, kind of like opening door #2 to find that you just traded a new car for a pair of goats.