After seeing Le Havre, audiences are likely to walk out of the theater muttering, to no one in particular, “Only in f****** France.”
But is that a compliment? In this case, yes—albeit a backhanded one. The cast is random (and old), the plot bizarre (yet believable), and the pacing slow (really slow). As its title suggests, the drama is set in Le Havre, Normandy, a village populated entirely by people who are likely to die soon—an expiration date that somehow contributes to the film’s charm. Also charming is the execution of the plot, which, like a lost episode in the life of Monsieur Hulot, centers on the relationship between an old man and a young boy, both of whom are loveably “against the law.” The boy, Idrissa (newcomer Blondin Miguel), is an African refugee trying to make his way to London to reunite with his mother. As Marcel Marx, French actor André Wilms plays the plays of a shoe-shiner who hangs around the seedier parts of town with Tati-like grace. In Le Havre‘s opening sequence, Marcel shines the shoes of a gangster who, minutes later, is shot down in a blaze of gunfire offscreen. “Poor guy,” says a nearby observer, to which Marcel replies, “Oh well. At least he had time to pay.”
Marcel fleeces his neighborhood greengrocer and spends his money in the local pub, oblivious to his wife, who’s at home silently suffering from a tumor. When she eventually checks herself into the care of a hospital, Idrissa moves in with Marcel at the shoe-shiner’s insistence. From there, the entire neighborhood—everyone from the baker to the bartender to the local celebrity—become Idrissa’s surrogate protectors. And they’re successful, despite the unwavering pursuit of the boy by the town’s chief inspector, who, in a Captain Renault-ian turn, determines to ship Idrissa back to his native country.
The film, which is funny and odd without seeming ridiculous, is kindly absurd to the core: the vigilante justice, the Andy Hardy-like enthusiasm, the construct of a town where the chief inspector walks around dressed like something straight from a Jean Gabin film. But if Le Havre has one major achievement, it’s in the casting, which is both spot-on and weird, but most of all completely un-American in the best way possible. If in Hollywood old people scarcely exist except to die (or to stay behind the camera), it’s remarkable to see how, in a film from France, the very presence of older characters can drive a plot. More than that, it’s a reminder to audiences that desire, complexity, and heroism–and, yes, life—doesn’t actually end after thirty.
The New York Film Festival begins September 30 and runs until October 16. Stay tuned for continued coverage.