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Still water runs deep

OUT NOW! The grim subject matter of LE HAVRE is given a fairy tale veneer by the Finnish auteur.

A story that could be told by a stalwart British realist or an earnest German documentary filmmaker gets the Kaurismäki treatment until it almost achieves the character of a fairy tale, albeit a grim one.

In Le Havre, Idrissa (Miguel), a young African refugee manages to escape when the container holding him and a group of illegals hoping to be shipped to England is opened by fierce-looking policemen (which probably saves all of their lives, but the alternative to suffocating is of course to be sent back to poverty and war).

Hiding in the harbor, he meets shoeshine man Marcel – a survivor from one of Kaurismäki’s previous films, La vie de bohème (1992), where he carries the same name and is played by the same actor, André Wilms. Marcel is somewhat stranded himself – his wife (Outinen) had to leave home to undergo cancer treatment in a hospital.

That the quietly despairing Marcel decides to help Idrissa by getting the neighbors involved in a fundraising effort is a surprising decision, and triggers several personal conflicts, which Marcel manages to negotiate in a manner that makes you truly want to believe in humanity while the world is going to hell in a handbasket.

They might not be a cheerful lot, but over the years Kaurismäki has collected a veritable army of characters who are struggling to do the right thing; it’s a testament to his ultimate belief in human beings that they vastly outnumber the ones who are not, even though the latter ones might be those who hold more power.

His portrayal of the homeless teenaged migrant Idrissa, who barely says a word, is more complex than any political analysis and more to the point than many documentaries.

Kaurismäki fans will be glad to hear that the film’s ideas are delivered with the quirky dialogue that’s unique to the director and has endeared him to generations of cineastes. Kaurismäki characters walk up to one another, stop, consider, and then say what they have to say with a gravity that takes your breath way. Never do two people speak at the same time.

It leaves the audience plenty of space to think and to breathe with characters that become ever more real because you never know what they’re thinking.

Le Havre | Directed by Aki Kaurismäki (Finland, France, Germany 2011) with André Wilms, Kati Outinen, Blondin Miguel. Opens September 8