Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
Lisa Schwarzbaum
May 19, 2011 AT 02:30 PM EDT

Now, in the final lap of the Cannes Film Festival, is the time when we critics begin comparing notes and conjecturing meaninglessly on possible prize winners. (Analyze this: What will jury president Robert De Niro like? And have Lars von Trier’s thoughtless comments, reported at face value by disingenuous journalists with no time for context, ruined the chances for von Trier’s great movie Melancholia?) Meanwhile, as we shmooze and quantify, here’s a quiet headline: There’s not a critic I know, including me, who doesn’t put Le Havre, by the sometimes imitated but essentially inimitable Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki, high up on any list of favorites and contenders for a top prize.

Here, with neither the cosmos nor child cruelty as a publicity-generating selling point, is a small, perfect, pointedly optimistic story set among good working-class neighbors in a French port neighborhood located somewhere between Brigadoon and the classic films of Children of Paradise‘s Marcel Carné. Not for nothing is our crusty, salt-of-the-earth hero named Marcel Marx (AK regular André Wilms) and his good wife called Arletty (AK’s ageless muse Kati Outinen, above). Marcel is the perfect working-man philosopher: He’s a Bohemian writer in the past, now content as a humble, itinerant shoe-shine man who often works beside a taciturn Vietnamese colleague (Quoc-Dung Nguyen). Daily life consists of a comforting series of picturesque rituals: Morning bread from the boulangerie, a melon from the greengrocer, an evening apéritif at a cozy, smoky proletarian bar before a simple dinner lovingly cooked by a devoted wife, and the reliability of a faithful dog.

This typically deadpan saga from the maker of The Match Factory Girl, Drifting Clouds and The Man Without a Past (among other Netflix finds) exemplifes France’s commitment to liberté, égalité, fraternité with impish sincerity: When one resourceful kid (Blondin Miguel) escapes after police discover a dockside cargo container hiding a gaggle of desperate African illegal immigrants, Marcel hides and feeds the boy, named Idrissa. The neighbors help, too. Alas, Arletty gets trundled away to a hospital, diagnosed with an illess that only a miracle can cure. And a snitching denouncer (Truffaut legend Jean-Pierre Léaud!) makes trouble, while a by-the-book police inspector (Jean-Pierre Darrouusin) snoops around. The melodrama deepens!

But this is a magical France, a movie France, populated by proud citizens on the side of tolerance and doing the right thing. (A Kaurismäki France, the scenery is characteristically hipster-shabby, shot in a Nordic palette of blues and reds and accompanied by a great soundtrack with a rockabilly beat.) That today’s France, beset by economic crisis that has given rise to a certain national resentment towards immigrants, doesn’t match Kaurismäki’s poker-faced, painted-picture  fairytale makes Le Havre all the sweeter and sharper.

Read more:

Cannes: The best at mid-fest, including ‘The Artist’

Terrence Malick’s ‘Tree of Life’ is part luminous evocation of boyhood, part cosmic woo-woo

Cannes: A new year, a new provocation from ‘Michael,’ the Pedophile Movie

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