Screens at CIFF: 10/8 & 10/9
World premiere: 17 May, 2011, Cannes Film Festival

I've been grappling with a bit over the entirely arbitrary question whether or not Le Havre represents a major new work by Finland's most beloved native filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki, or if it's merely that it's sufficiently less minor than his last feature, 2006's Lights in the Dusk, that it feels like a return to form. And then, of course, realise that I'm being a damn idiot, and here I have a new Kaurismäki picture that I'm trying to plug into some predetermined hole, rather than being excited that the director's five-year drought has ended with a piece that, major or minor, is characteristic of the director at his best: enthusiastic about his characters' peculiarities, engaged with the state of the world around him in a deep way, but not at the cost of being ham-handedly political, comic in such a bone-dry way that even the best gags are more weird than they are funny. Also, there is rock and roll.

Le Havre is a port town on the northwest coast of France, and it is here that we meet the Marxes, Marcel (André Wilms) a low-rent shoeshine, and his wife Arletty (Kati Outinen). The character names are what they call a tell: without being "about" the history of French cinema, Le Havre nevertheless feels in some fasion a tribute to the texture and sensibility of French poetic realism of the late-'30s. There's more than a little bit of Marcel Carné in the way that Kaurismäki marries a cast of his usual delightful oddballs to the sounds and rhythms of a port town, to name only the most obvious example; and there are little touches here and there where the director pays a short tribute to a certain genre or stylistic movement - an opening scene that suggests a half-parody, half-homage to the twisted crime movies of the New Wave, or an antagonist, Inspector Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), whose black trenchcoat, smart black fedora, and implacable attitude are right out of a Jean-Pierre Melville film from a universe where Melville made outright comedies.

But none of these touchstones, however fun they are when you stumble across them, are as much the heart and soul of the film as the light social activism of its main plot: while Arletty wastes away in hospital with a terrible case of cancer that she steadfastly hides from Marcel, her husband ends up befriending and aiding Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), a teenager who managed to hide when the immigration services deported the rest of his cargo container full of hopeful refugees back to Africa. Without ever once descending into the heavy message-movie excesses that usually accompany French movies about that country's difficult immigration problems, Le Havre posits, succinctly and sweetly, that decent people would rather see these refugees, illegal or not, healthy and safe rather than caged in detention centers. No harangues, no breast-beating: just a placid humanist tale of nice folks helping other nice folks, and not-so-nice folks actually being nice underneath all of the curmudgeonly official attitude.

Of course, Le Havre isn't "a French film", though it was co-produced on French money - it uses France because that setting permits a certain kind of story about people to be told, and perhaps that is what makes the difference. Perhaps it's just that Kaurismäki is more interest in people than in sociology: that is to say, he is interested in sociology insofar as it explains people.

Whatever the case, Le Havre is a wonderfully concise, unfussy movie; it is "easy" by the director's standards, which is to say that it doesn't leave any significant ellipses in the narrative up until the aggressively darling ending, which could in any other hands be annoyingly ironic; but Kaurismäki, however detached he frequently can be from his characters, is never ironic towards them.

By no means should all of the above suggest that the movie is all syrupy sweetness and life and triumph of the human spirit: there's far too much of a deadpan sense of humor for that to be the case. The figures we meet are, by and large, grotesques; true, they are grotesques that the story believes in and sides with, and so we never feel that we're laughing at them - but we also never believe them in the sense that they strike us as psychologically plausible or "realistic". Le Havre, like every Kaurismäki film, expects us to make certain concession in order to engage with it: we will allow him to drive the story at the unusual pace that he thinks best, and take whatever peculiar sidetrips along the way (which includes here a suddenly announced, just as suddenly completed charity concert arranged in the middle of a portside warehouse), and in return he gives us a form of wry wit and good cheer that we can't get from quite anywhere else. Le Havre is not among the very top of his films, but it's quite a charmer, and as close to a perfect introduction to his style as I think he's yet made.