Cannes, last year: while the French-backed The Artist was paying fulsome homage to the former glories of the American cinema, another crowdpleaser found a Finnish director celebrating the liberté, égalité and fraternité of all things French. Aki Kaurismäki's Le Havre, named for the northern port town in which it unfolds, opens with a scene that suggests imitation Godard, or imitation Godard-imitating-Melville. A shifty, raincoated man steps off a train at the Gare du Havre and - recognising that he's been tailed here - elects to stop for a moment to have his shoes shined: his last act, it will turn out. This being the work of the ever-idiosyncratic Kaurismäki, however, it isn't the spies we follow, but the humble shoe shiner: a greying fellow named Marcel Marx (André Wilms), his first name - and that of his devoted wife Arletty (played by Kaurismäki regular Kati Outinen) - immediately evoking the world of Marcel Carné, director of the immortal Les Enfants du Paradis.
Somewhere in Le Havre, the fog of such dockside noirs as Carné's Le Quai des Brumes persists - but Kaurismäki is less fatalistically inclined: a noted bon vivant (just ask any of the journalists who've attempted to match him drink for drink), the director's usual fondness for watering holes in all their forms here gets a specifically French twist, as the film retreats, whenever things start to look a little gloomy, to Marcel's favourite bar, where the locals meet to listen to old chansons and debate the respective merits of Alsace and Breton culture. Quelle caméraderie. Yet if the film is soaked in this nostalgic, if not entirely mythical idea of la belle France, a prominently positioned news clip of immigration officials clearing one of the numerous refugee camps in the Calais-Le Havre region suggests Kaurismäki has an eye on contemporary realities as well.
The film's plot kicks into gear when Marcel returns home one day to find, huddled in his outhouse, Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), a young immigrant from Gabon who escaped during a police raid on a container down at the docks. Local tabloids, with sad inevitability, wonder whether the escapee might be armed and dangerous, or have links with Al-Qaeda. Though Le Havre takes place in what devotees will recognise as Kaurismäki-land - a place where every interior is painted a melancholy, cerulean blue, and the principals often strike poses in deadpan tableaux - it speaks to that strain of nationalism in French politics that can topple over into outright xenophobia, and has been known to flourish in financially straitened, working-class areas such as this. Idrissa's pursuers are represented by the peerlessly precise Jean-Pierre Darroussin in a black hat and coat as a misanthropic police inspector, a shadowy prefect (whom we hear, but never see), and Jean-Pierre Léaud as a do-gooding "dénonciateur" who takes it upon himself to shop the lad.
We might see the casting of the latter, erstwhile poster boy of the French New Wave (Truffaut's Antoine Doinel, star of Eustache's The Mother and the Whore, etc.) as a comment on how the idealism of youth can harden, with age and regret, to suspicion and entrenchment. (The denouncer's actions are set against Marcel's far happier recollections of his Bohemian days.) Kaurismäki, for his part, is keener to celebrate togetherness and community, rather than these loners and cranks; you see it in the recurring shots of subjects - not just people, but glasses, cakes, boiled eggs - arranged in groups, and in the film's cheery, unsentimental determination to bring characters in from the cold, wherever possible: one of Le Havre's more unexpected attractions is a charity concert that offers a late-career comeback for pint-sized rocker Roberto "Little Bob" Piazza, apparently something of a megastar in this part of the world.
Kaurismäki is beginning to take a real pleasure in his performers, and finding out how they might best fit together: Wilms, devouring cheese and cigarettes, is spot-on as a kind of distillation of the working French everyman, while newcomer Blondin sports the same reassuringly baleful expression as the palefaces the director usually casts. Under the generous, funny eccentricities (Darroussin has a great moment with a pineapple), there's a core of real warmth and affection here, as well as a desire to say something, however modest, about the world we now live in. If, as The Artist amply demonstrated, the best cinema knows no boundaries, we might see the relationships between Marcel, his Vietnamese sidekick, and the kid from Gabon as mini-models of integration - and, beyond that, of a pure and simple humanity.
Le Havre opens in selected cinemas from Friday, and on pay-per-view via Film Flex, the Guardian website, and Curzon on Demand.