Review: Le Havre is Home to Deadpan Doldrums

Set in a present day almost entirely devoid of modern trappings – save for the use of one cell phone – Ari Kaurismaki’s Le Havre is practically begging to be described as “quaint,” “old-fashioned” and “deadpan.” Having not seen any of the filmmaker’s other efforts, I can’t confirm whether they all suffer from the same stilted direction and delivery, but this tale of an older curmudgeon and his unlikely friendship with a young boy is so low-key that it falls closer to “dishwater dull” than anything else.

Marcel Marx (Andre Wilms) is a shoe shiner in the titular French town, well-kept by his wife, Arletty (Kati Outinen), and not particularly well-liked in his neighborhood. However, just as Arletty finds herself in the hospital, Marcel finds himself face-to-face with Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), a Gabonese refugee recently freed from a shipping container and being tracked down by ruthless detective Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin). With fable-like timing, Marcel now has someone to care for while his own caregiver is away.

It’s a perfectly wholesome tale of a former rabble-rouser doing one last good deed, and uniting the neighborhood in the process, that doesn’t deviate from heartwarming formula. The modest ensemble operates with a convincing rapport and no particular fault can be found with any of the performances or the simplistic message of kindness unto strangers. What few jokes do merit a smile do so by demonstrating a nicely off-kilter sense of humor – when Marcel is encouraged to put on a charity concert because they’re trendy, he specifically asks a rocker to help him put on “a trendy charity concert” – a sense of humor that might have introduced some much-needed personality had it been implemented in the film’s every other regard.

However, so long as Kaurismaki’s style, as it were, necessitates extra beats after every action and reaction and line reading, the entire film feels willfully divorced from any sense of conventional conversation or traditional comedic timing and honestly becomes a slog of old-fashioned ideals and utter non-whimsy.

Grade: D+