You can make a strong case that whimsy is best encountered when it's unexpected.
In the Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki's subversively sentimental "Le Havre," the basic building blocks of the film suggest something far from a wry fable. (The Fresno Filmworks presentation screens March 9 only at the Tower Theatre.) Set in a poorer neighborhood in a French port city, the film is infused with working-class routine and a dour yet dignified hardscrabble ambience.
The main character, an older shoeshine man named Marcel (André Wilms), who looks like he's fixed a scheme or two in his life, labors through the day one step ahead of the police. His life gets a lot more complicated when he crosses paths with a boy named Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), an illegal immigrant from Gabon who evades capture by the authorities after being smuggled into the country in a shipping container.
The way Kaurismaki treats the boy's "escape" is indicative of the temperament of the film. The boy walks out of the container, calmly rounds the corner and trots off, with a police officer holding his fire. There is no dramatic buildup, no fancy camera work, no pounding soundtrack. Just a matter-of-fact meandering through the narrative.
That tone holds throughout, the tempo of the film barely budging, as if it's a comfortable metronome moving forward. Even Marcel's dog is an exhibit in canine mellow, as if someone slipped Ambien into his food. As we meet craggy secondary characters (a stern shopkeeper, a sympathetic bartender, a caring neighbor), the storyline eventually eases into a little more complexity, as Marcel deals with a nosy police detective and, in the most sympathetic plot thread, the serious illness faced by his wife (Kati Outinen, whose wide-open expression seems to bore right into the camera).
Yet, something light and magical happens here. "Le Havre" slides into whimsy. It's hard to pinpoint exactly when. (Well, perhaps it's when an aging French rock star named Little Bob makes a cameo.) You become slowly aware that you've been sucked in. In a film that revels in the hardness of life, softness prevails. It's a remarkable thing -- and a good reason why Kaurismaki is held in such high regard.
"Le Havre," unrated. Stars Andre Wilms and Blondin Miguel. Directed by Aki Kaurismaki. A Fresno Filmworks presentation at 5:30 and 8 p.m. March 9 only, Tower Theatre, 815 E. Olive Ave. Tickets: $10 and $8. Grade: B+
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