The film I thought of most while watching Aki Kaurismaki’s Le Havre was another film about illegal immigration, Tom McCarthy’s The Visitor. But where The Visitor managed to tell an extremely enlightening, powerful tale, Le Havre stays more on the absurd comedic side of things. While the comedy makes the film completely enjoyable, it actually undermines the inherent power of the story, causing it to feel fairly slight.
Le Havre is about an elderly man in France who is on his own while his wife is secretly dying of cancer in a hospital. At the same time, a shipping container full of illegal immigrants from Africa is found and a young boy manages to run away. The older man finds the boy and decides to shelter him until he can get him smuggled out of France to his mother in England.
A few of the townsfolk also come to the boy’s aid, and there is a police detective one the boy’s trail. The characters are all fun and make the movie a light ride. Helping that tone is Kaurismaki’s visual style for the film, which is very clearly inspired by classic French New Wave. and Melville in particular. The movie looks like it easily could have been shot in the late 60s/early 70s. It’s quite a striking style, and it’s wonderful to look at.
In the end, though, Le Havre doesn’t manage to get past that lighter tone. While the more serious and emotional moments are reasonably effective within the film, they become obscured by the whole. After leaving the film for a while it easily escapes memory, except the broad memory of it being quite enjoyable and sweet.