Marcel (veteran Andre Wilms), an ageing, bohemian writer, now a shoeshine man at the railway station, chances across a young boy, Idrissa (newcomer Blondin Miguel), hiding in the port. He has just escaped from a shipping container with a cargo of illegal immigrants from West Africa, discovered by suspicious police who crowbar it open. Out of instinctive humanity, Marcel takes this solemn, polite and adorable boy home to feed, look after and hide from the police. As this odd couple get to know each other, Marcel learns about the usually unseen world of the African immigrant community – there’s even news footage of the camps at Sangatte – and in his sympathetic efforts to help, tracks down Idrissa’s grandfather where he is being held prior to deportation.
Getting more and more involved in Idrissa’s life, Marcel and his wife, and many friends and neighbours in the poorer quarter of the port collaborate to conceal the resourceful boy. In all manner of devious ways, they hide him from the police inspector who is searching the town for him and try to find a way for him to escape to reach his mother and his dream destination.
The film is Kaurismaki’s idiosyncratic take on the pressing political issue of immigration from South to North, which he approaches with the fresh eyes and enthusiasm of someone who has only recently become aware of it. In keeping with its French location, the film’s style pays homage to – and perhaps alludes to the themes of – the classic films of directors such as Carné, made as covert resistance during the German wartime occupation of France, and postwar Melville, who had been a member of the French resistance. The present day looks and feels if it’s the 1940s or ’50s – brightly lit, angled close-ups held for long pauses create emphasis like punctuation marks. Marcel’s wife (Kati Outinen, the director’s favourite actress), who for most of the film is in hospital, perhaps dying, is even called Arletty, like the iconic star of Carné’s Les Enfants du Paradis.
In Kaurismaki’s humane vision of life in Le Havre, despite the general lack of money, Arletty and Marcel are still touchingly in love, their neighbours in the quartier are generous, the immigrants are dignified real people and sudden acts of unexpected kindness can be found in unlikely places – even from a police inspector. And, finally, yes, miracles can happen. You leave the cinema smiling. Life suddenly seems good. But only one person’s problem has been solved– out of the many. Is it sentimental or ironic? Sincere or cynical?