Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Le Havre - Chicago International Film Festival

Le Havre is a film that celebrates life and does so in a most charming, unusual tale that centers around a simple man who only wants to do the proper thing. Beautifully written and acted with honest performances, this is a film with impressive insight into the everyday feelings all of us encounter from time to time.

Set in the French port town of Le Havre that borders the English Channel, the film opens as Marcel (André Wilms), a middle-aged shoe shine, takes care of a customer at the train station. He notices that his wrist is handcuffed to his briefcase, so he suspects evil doing, but he knows better than to say anything. In a few seconds, the customer will encounter trouble, which allows Marcel a hilarious line which I won't give away here, but the offbeat tone of the film is firmly set in place.

Marcel once lived a Bohemian life in Paris as a writer, but middle age and marriage to an honest, devoted woman has given him focus not on the big picture, but rather on the small things in life, especially when it comes to devotion and friendliness. Not long after we meet Marcel, his paths cross with a teen-age boy named Idrissa from Africa who has landed in Le Havre as an illegal immigrant, along with 20 or so of his fellow countrymen and women. He is able to flee the police at the harbor and once Marcel sees this boy's plight, he knows only that he must help him.

Director Ari Kaurismaki from Finland has stated that the European cinema has not addressed the problem of refugees, many of whom are treated rather inhumanely. He admits he does not have the answer to this problem, but no matter - he has started the ball rolling by making this film.

As Marcel begins to assist the boy, his life is complicated when his wife Arletty has to be rushed to the hospital after suffering some severe pain in her mid-section. After Marcel leaves his wife's side under doctor's orders, Arletty learns of the seriousness of her condition - she has a malignant tumor. She begs the doctor not to tell her husband the whole truth, as she believes he will not be able to deal with this news. Though reluctant at first, the doctor agrees with Arletty and tells Marcel that her tumor is benign.

Marcel, thinking that his wife will recover completely, can now address the problem of the young boy, who wants to be reunited with his mother, a refugee in London. He was also supposed to land in London, but the cargo container he was on landed in Le Havre by mistake. "Computer error, probably," says an employee at the dock, a inhuman, bitterly ironic comment that speaks volumes about the treatment of these individuals in France and other countries. (The newspaper headlines, reporting on the discovery of 20 illegal refugees asks the question of the readers, "Is there a link to Al-Queda?").

I won't give any more plot details away, except to say that the police inspector (Jean-Pierre Daroussin in my favorite performance in the film) assigned to finding this refugee, has some surprises in store for Marcel and the boy. An authority figure, inspector Monet questions his role - and his emotions - in this battle between law and individual freedom.

I loved the way that Marcel deals with his neighbors who are grocers. While often broke, he usually has to pay for a loaf of bread or some vegetables on credit. But once these people discover that Marcel is working to deliver the boy's freedom, they forget past problems and help him in his cause.

It's this recognition of humanity along with some marvelously droll scenes that make Le Havre such an engaging film. Add to this the troubling situation that director Kaurismaki tackles with great subtlety and wit and you have a film that pleases on several levels.

Le Havre was awarded the Gold Hugo as the best film of the 47th Chicago International Film Festival. It will be shown at 5:45 on Wednesday, October 19th as part of the "Best of the Fest" evening.

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