Aki Kaurismaki's 'Le Havre' is somewhat of a departure for the director. Kaurismaki's movies usually deal with sad, lonely people, but in 'Le Havre' he leaves that behind and tells a story about people doing good things for each other and karmic retribution.
'Le Havre' is an easy film to love. Its main character, Marcel Marx (Andre Wilms) is a lowly shoe shiner who works the streets of a tiny port city in France called Le Havre. Marcel doesn't have much, but he's happy with what he's got. He earns a few Euros a day which he and his wife store in a tin in the kitchen cupboard. What are they saving up for? We don't know, all we know is that they're poor enough to stash money away in tins hoping for better days.
Marcel's wife, Arletty (Kati Outinen) is his rock. She silently waits at home for Marcel to return from the day's shoe shining. She promptly prepares dinner with the scant portions of food they have, and then irons his clothes so he'll be ready for the next day. They never quarrel. They love each other. Kaurismaki is able to convey this love through short, tender scenes where they catch each other's eyes and just stare for a moment. It's easy to tell how they feel for each other because Kaurismaki is so good at conveying deep emotion without having his actors say a word.
The people who live around Marcel know him as a decent man. A baker down the way says, "When are you going to pay your bill?" As Marcel picks up a long baguette. He assures her he will, she scoffs and smiles. These are people who are willing to help each other out even though they might not have the money to warrant it.
As Marcel is living his life, shining shoes on street corners, the country of France is facing an ongoing immigration problem. Refugees from Africa are showing up in the country stuffed into shipping containers, hoping to find a better life than the one they left behind. In one of those containers is a young boy named Idrissa (Blondin Miguel). Idrissa makes a run for it when the container is opened, and soon runs across Marcel. The two instantly connect.
In a country full of racial turmoil, fraught with political unrest because of the refugee problem, Marcel befriends Idrissa with no problem. To him Idrissa is just another person needing help. Marcel's wife has come down with a mysterious illness and is in the hospital, so he focuses his time and energy into helping this poor African kid.
What transpires is a story that preaches a testament to the goodness of humanity. How a society full of kind, caring people can live by the spirit of the law rather than the letter. It's illegal for Marcel to aid and abed the kid, but he doesn't care. In his mind, helping the kid is of paramount importance because he's a human. I have to think that no matter who crossed Marcel's path, he would've helped them out. He's just that kind of guy.
In a very subtle, but fantastic way, Kaurismaki weaves together a delicate comedy about good people doing good things for each other. I'm sure the idea of karma is fully in play here even though none of the characters mention it outright. Instead it's an implied theme that doesn't reveal itself fully until the very final shot. 'Le Havre' operates on the assumption that within most people is goodness. That people will help other people whenever possible. That cynicism and skepticism have no place in a good-natured society. In the end, 'Le Havre' left me feeling energetic about the possibilities of the human race. I hope I can always feel that way.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This is a Criterion release. The 50GB Blu-ray Disc comes packaged in a standard Criterion clear keepcase. The spine number is 619. Inside there is a 24-page booklet which covers cast, crew, production credits, and notes about Criterion's high-def restoration of the film. It also contains an essay from writer and critic Michael Sicnski called "Always Be a Human," along with a printed interview called "A Place of Peace" where Kaurismaki discusses 'Le Havre' with film critic Peter Von Bagh. This is a Region A release.
Wow, this transfer is extremely impressive, although 'Le Havre' was released theatrically in 2011 so I expected it to look nearly flawless in HD.
Criterion's 1080p transfer brings out so much detail, color, and life that it's easy to get lost in the visuals. Kaurismaki is prone to extreme close-ups and in high-def the facial detail that's revealed during these is staggering. Marcel's weathered face features cracks, wrinkles and crags. His thinning strands of hair can be seen blowing around the top of his head, even visible as individual strands blowing around. The texture on the clothing looks like you could reach out and touch it. I did notice some shimmering on Marcel's tightly woven overcoat, but other than that there weren't any other technical anomalies to speak of. Check out the amount of detail on the cement column, holding up the pier when Marcel first finds the boy. You can see every bump and dip.
Colors are rich and vibrant. Much of the movie is bathed in darker tones like browns and blacks, but even a neon blue restaurant sign blazes with HD glory once it's given a chance to shine. Everything about this transfer is noteworthy, even though it's a low-key comedy/drama. Each scene features so much detail that Criterion fans will rejoice to have this in their collection.
The movie has been provided a French DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, which does its job extremely well. A movie like this you would expect to be on the soft side simply because the movie's atmosphere doesn't call for audio pyrotechnics. While it may be on the soft side, being a talkative drama, the movie has been perfectly mixed to get the most out of the surrounds.
I thought the rear channels had enough ambient action to keep me engulfed in the movie. I wasn't expecting much from back there, but what I got was gulls cawing, people chatting and walking on busy French streets, and the echoing of a concert playing some great music toward the end. The concert scene provides the movie's only real LFE, but it's deep and resonant. Dialogue is always clearly delivered through the center channel, with the front channels helping in directionality. Cars and buses pass through the frame and so does their sound, seamlessly. I was very surprised at how on the ball this audio presentation was, even when it had every right to be a mix that solely was used to get you through the movie.
I couldn't help but smile when 'Le Havre' was over. It was a pleasure to watch and a pleasure to think about afterward. Far too few movies fall into a category like that. In a world filled with pessimism and snark, it's great to see a little movie like this that shines a spotlight on the overwhelming good that resides in humanity. Most people are decent and honest is the message of 'Le Havre,' I'd like to believe that's true. The video and audio are top notch Criterion quality. This title comes highly recommended.