Le Havre has been showing at a lot of festivals and getting a lot of awards, including the top prize at the Chicago International Film Festival. It holds an amazingly high percentage on Rotten Tomatoes and a very decent average on Metacritic. I mention these things only because I found it pretty difficult to understand why it’s been so well received. It seems people are giving it credit for what it could have done rather than what it did do. In reality, Le Havre is just not a very good movie.
Director: Aki Kaurismäki
Release Date: 10/21/11
Le Havre tells the story of Marcel Marx (André Wilms), a shoe shiner who is just kind of going through his life and seems to be doing well enough. His wife (Kati Outinen) is a very caring woman, he makes money occasionally, and he knows people that he can wrangle food from if he needs to. Unrelated to him, a group of Africans are found by the police in a cargo container headed for London at the city’s port, and one young boy named Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) runs away. Marx, while eating lunch, sees him wading in the water and offers him food when an inspector (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) makes him leave the area (without seeing the boy). Some undetermined amount of time later, Marx finds Idrissa in his shed and decides to help him escape the country. Then his wife gets sick (but lies to him about how sick she is), they raise money to get Adrissa to to London by having a very old rock star (who looks kind of like a puppet) give a charity concert. Then more things happen, and, thanks to the magic of film, it all works out in the end.
If that sounds interesting to you, then you should know that its potential has been wasted. It should be a film about illegal immigration and illegal immigrants, but it really isn’t. Illegal immigration is a part of it, but it’s not done any kind of justice. I think there are a few reasons that it fails to elicit any kind of real impact. The first is that there really is never a sense of danger. Even though the police periodically show up and he has to be hidden, Marx still sends him out on errands (and even sends him on a bus to a hospital). Any sense of urgency is mitigated by the fact that no one seems particularly worried about anything. The only moment where it seems something bad could happen is right near the end of the film, but it takes a turn straight from a Hollywood movie and the drama is gone in less than 60 seconds.
This is made worse by the film’s incredibly erratic tone. It bills itself as a Drama/Comedy but doesn’t really succeed at either. There’s not enough there to get invested in any kind of drama (as I said, there’s no danger or urgency to the whole thing), and the humor muddled the feel of the film and made things kind of confusing. It would be dramatic one scene and then weirdly funny the next. It worked much better as a comedy (especially in the second half), but it’s not really a comedic film. It tries to be a comedy with a dramatic undertone and does really doesn’t succeed.
A third problem is specific to those of us who don’t speak French. The subtitles on the version of the film that I saw were terrible. They seemed to be a direct translation (“I am home” “I notice that”) rather than a one that accounts for differences in expression (“I am home” “I see that”). The grammar was terrible, entire words were missing, and it was just a generally poor experience in that regard. Whoever did the subtitles on this film should be fired. That being said, the issues with subtitles are minor in the grand scheme of things. If you don’t speak French, however, prepare to be annoyed.
On the whole, the acting is acceptable. Although Darroussin’s inspector was the only person I was ever excited to see on screen, the other actors did a fine job keeping everyone else from being completely lifeless with a single exception. The character of Idrissa seems to have no personality whatsoever. I don’t think his face ever goes from completely stoic, and I don’t know if that was a directorial choice or not. If it was, it was a terrible choice. If not, it was a terrible casting choice. No matter how you look at it, Idrissa really failed as a character. Since he is really the driving force of the entire film, a lot of the story kind of falls apart.
More than anything, though, is the film’s inability to pace anything. The is incredibly slow. Although it clocks in at only 93 minute long, it feels so much longer. Nearly every shot goes on about a second too long. Many shots end with some actor making a facial expression of some kind, and the camera just sort of waits for a couple seconds, and it gets kind of unbearable after the 30th or 40th time. This lack of proper pacing is exacerbated by the aforementioned concert, which happens in real time for more than three minutes. The song is basically indeciphrable, so any potential significance in the lyrics is lost in the music, and there is no reason for it to keep going. It just does. Fortunately, the song’s not too bad. I wouldn’t listen to it on my own time, but it wasn’t grating. It was just unnecessary.
Unnecessary is a good way to describe this film. Pretty much everything about the film ranges from mediocre to bad, and little stands out. The character of the inspector is fun and I did laugh out loud a few times over the course of the film, but those things don’t make it worth watching. Nothing in Le Havre ever seems to strive for greatness. It’s just sort of there. The film seems pretty much content to be nothing special, and that’s fine, but I can’t really recommend it to anybody. Don’t go out of your way to see it, but if you find yourself watching it I don’t think you should turn it off.