"I used to live a Bohemian life in Paris," aging, down-at-heel Marcel Marx (André Wilms) tells young Gabonese refugee Idrissa (Blondin Miguel).
The entire oeuvre of Aki Kaurismaki, Finland's poker-faced champion of downbeat humanism and Fifties rockabilly cool, is deeply infused with such nostalgic sentiment - and he has been directing for so long now (over 30 years) that a line like Marcel's can evoke not just times lost, but also Kaurismaki's own past filmography. For in Kaurismaki's La Vie de Boheme (1992), Wilms had already played the younger Marcel - but now he has washed up on the shores of Normandy's Le Havre where, despite shining shoes for small change, he lives a life of hand-to-mouth contentment with his beloved foreign wife Arletty (played by long-term Kaurismaki muse Kati Outinen).
When Arletty is hospitalised with an almost certainly terminal illness, Marcel decides to harbour Idrissa and help get the boy to his mother in London. The immigration police and the ambiguous Inspector Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) are circling in, but as Marcel tells Idrissa's grandfather: "I'm not alone, I've friends" - and soon his entire community of marginalised proletarians comes together to resurrect the principles of liberte, egalite and fraternite for a new, post-9/11 world ruled by insularity and xenophobia.
Ever a master at remixing established genres in his own understated, elliptical idiom, Kaurismaki opens Le Havre with the shooting of a gangster, but keeps it off-screen, leaving Marcel to deadpan of his now dead customer: "Luckily he had time to pay." Then comes romantic melodrama, noirish cloak and dagger, religious allegory (note the priests, Easter-time setting and resurrection theme) and even a low-key 'let's put on a show' subplot shoehorned into the third act, while Marcel, in his underground efforts to smuggle Idrissa out of the country, is figured as a French Resistance movie hero (and his last scene with Monet is pure Casablanca). Kaurismaki's regular DP Timo Salminen shoots everything from an ironising distance, always preferring to have characters (typically still), rather than actions, in his frame, so that the story, though full of event, always retains its human focus.
The result is a film of rare, almost Capra-esque charm, in which the spirit of the past is always returning, good deeds reap simple - yet profound - rewards, and cherry blossoms that disappear for the winter come back in the spring.