Le Havre is the latest film from Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki, who is probably best known for his previous films Lights in the Dusk and The Man Without a Past. However, for a lot of people Kaurismäki will be just as famous for his refusal to attend the American Academy Awards, at which The Man Without a Past was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, in protest of American foreign policy.

Le Havre is the story of Marcel, an elderly former bohemian who now ekes out a living shining shoes in the town of Le Havre. Marcel’s formulaic life of shining shoes, having a tipple in his local bar and returning home to his loving wife is thrown into disarray as two major events impact on his life at the same time. His wife is admitted to hospital for cancer treatment and he crosses paths with Idrissa, a young illegal immigrant trying to join his mother in London. The plot unfolds from this point in a comedic fashion that verges on magical realism and touches on themes of loss, alienation, love and community.

Kaurismäki manages to weave a kind of Disney-esque disparity between the dilapidated surroundings and lives of his subjects. Almost all of the film’s characters are living a virtually subsistence lifestyle which is shown by Marcel having to rely on the charity of his neighbours to literally have bread to put on his table. However, this is juxtaposed with the eternal optimism and sense of community that is perfectly demonstrated in the scenes within the local bar. As the local underclass pull together to help Idrissa hide from the authorities and aid him in his goal of reaching London, the mild mannered anti-establishment sentiment of the movie reaches farcical and hilarious heights. Monet, the local police officer tasked with tracking down Idrissa, is one of the standout performances of the film. Monet, dressed in all black, with an element of the Gestapo about his slow deliberate movements and interrogatory dialogue, seems like the archetypal villain at the start of the film. As the plot unfolds and we learn more about him, it becomes apparent that he's closer to an anti-hero, with more in common with the denizens of the local bar than the gun toting border security forces, or the over zealous chief of police.

The sound production is excellent throughout the film. Very little non-diegetic music is used and when it is, it’s done so in a very knowing way to emphasize the playful lack of realism of the plot. Often scenes will play out with very little dialogue, using a mixture of silence and amplified diegetic sounds of the every day to enhance the unusual choice of shots and editing.

Le Havre’s visual style is a delight to behold. One gets a real sense of purpose from each type of shot that Kaurismäki employs. His use of long shots to frame characters’ against their backgrounds to ground characters in their surroundings and show that they are part of that place. Lingering close up shots of characters faces manage to demonstrate a depth of emotion that is hidden behind the whimsical nature of the plot and the stoic acting. There is a theatrical vein running through the direction of Le Havre with a lot of the scenes set up as if they were unfolding on stage and this is furthered by the use of fixed camera shots.

Some may find Le Havre alienating due to it’s unusual visual style and lack of overt comedy. Kaurismäki himself admits that the film is unrealistic. The film is essentially a comedy but deals with deeper themes than expected. Ageing, death, identity and even the philosophy of nationhood are looked at through this simple story of friendship. Le Havre manages to be one of the most heart warming films you’re likely to see this year without venturing into the realms of fromage.