“Le Havre” (2011): ****
Watch out: this film is brilliant but you may pass on it on the basis that it is “charming”, “deeply humane”, “a glorious hymn to the struggles of the working man” and so on, as it is routinely blurbed by admirers. Le Havre is rather better than its fans and possibly even its creators wanted.
The film is like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg in several ways: it creates an extraordinary and unique visual world – its colourways are similarly original – and it imbues ordinary lives with a matter-of-fact but also other-worldly moral code. I suppose in that sense it deserves the fairy-tale tag (and recalls Pan’s Labyrinth as it does so).
It is, unfortunately, sentimental in its ideology. It posits the idea that a tiny neighbourhood of friends would conspire against the state and the quisling in their midst to succour a stray African boy. That is, to be brutally frank, not an image of French society which is often portrayed, even by dissident French luvvies, or that leaps out of the news. What’s more, it is posited (perhaps, but bizarrely, to make the ploy more plausible) that whilst the politics and the wider environment of the film is bang up to date, the social and physical milieux of its main protagonists are locked-off in the 1970s. (So: the docks and the newspapers are modern, but the cafes and cars are ancient.)
At worst one might say that the film is a fairy-tale in which the French working and pujadist class are in love with immigrants. One might refine that into the hardly less improbable idea that they used to be.
But none of that matters. This is a beautiful and uplifting film and it is the grit to be found in it which is so engaging. One believes in the pain and suffering, and in the rust and cold which it brings us. And one can taste every sip of wine and bite of bread which its characters consume.
For a Brit and probably for a native, this takes us to many adored corners of the cult of frenchness.