“A nasty wind is blowing outside,” says the lugubrious Inspector Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), and he’s not talking about the weather. When a container from Gabon to London is mistakenly routed to Le Havre, this slip of a computer keyboard imperils the cargo inside: twenty or so Gabonese refugees, hoping to make it to England. And when the police break open the container, one of the refugees, a 10 year old boy called Idrisse, escapes, sparking a man hunt that looks certain to end in his recapture.
Certain, were that not for Marcel Marx, the crumpled, sad-eyed (is there any other kind of person in a Kaurismäki movie?) shoe-shine man who discovers Idrisse hiding beneath a fishing pier. Marx — no name in this film is undeliberate — has plenty of troubles of his own: his business isn’t going too well and his wife Arletty — I told you — is ill, possibly terminally so, although she bravely does her best to conceal it from him. But he has a little money and a big heart, so he decides to help Idrisse, hiding the boy in his home and tracing the rest of his family through an intimidating refugee detention centre. Slowly, tenderly, Kaurismäki brings to life the small community around Marcel — the grocer, the cafe owner, even the cop — as he asks little favours of each of them, stitching salvation together piece by piece.
Le Havre is a beautiful blend of Kaurismäki’s deadpan Finnish humour with a deep love of French cinema: it’s lit like a Jacques Demy musical and even has a role for Jean-Pierre Léaud. It’s also the best kind of political film. By focusing on Idrisse it tells the story of so many, but without becoming sprawling. By choosing as its hero a man with so little, it shows that no effort is too small, and that no one should feel that they can’t help. And by telling its story as comedy it never feels like a lecture: it’s an argument for kindness, not a tract for political change. But there’s no doubt what’s going on here, and three years on, with UKIP leading the British European polls and the main political parties competing over who can speak the toughest language, it’s more relevant than ever.
As Arletty’s condition worsens, her doctor says to her hopefully, “Miracles do happen”. “Not in my part of town,” she replies. Le Havre is itself a small miracle, a heartfelt and beautiful tribute to the best in all of us.