Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Feb 23, 2011 12:18 pm 
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Comedy, suspense, and social satire in the Banlieue

Top Floor, Left Wing writer-director Angelo Cianci's entertaining and politically alert first feature is a ghetto comedy with a new approach to the peripheral Parisian banlieue world and its manifold social problems. The banlieue has provided fodder for a range of French dramas like Mathieu Kassovitz's 1995 La haine, Kechicne's celebrated debut Games of Love and Chance (2003), or Audrey Estrougo's less known Ain't Scared (2007). And it's been milked successfully for action films like Ma 6-T va crack-er (Jean-François Richet, 1996), Pierre Morel's Banlieue 13 (2004), or the more mainstream From Paris with Love (2009, Morel again), the latter two, and others, featuring the French-spawned school of building-jumping acrobatics called parkour.

Top Floor, Left Wing's young protagonist is the feisty, foul-mouthed French-Algerian 20-something Akli AKA Salem (Aymen Saïd) who shares a shabby high-rise apartment with his out-of-work father Mohand (Mohammed Fellag), might have made good use of parkour's gravity-defying skills. But he's more earthbound when François, Hippolyte Girardot's sardonic bailiff (or huissier de justice) invades the building threatening eviction. Akli's terror -- if the authorities inspect the flat they could find the five kilos of cocaine he's holding for a dealer pal -- turns to rage and he takes François prisoner to demand justice for his family and, eventually, the whole building.

The practical problem is precisely that the front door is blocked by cops when the crisis Akli starts is under way, and the cocaine is there, and the flat windows are too high up for an escape -- if you aren't a parkour specialist, that is. So while controversy and excitement rage outside, Mahoud, François and Akli, stuck in close quarters day and night and another day, get to know each other as they never would otherwise, and that includes father and son. Cianci's screenplay generates considerable excitement while spinning out socio-political satire as it skillfully describes the machinations of a local mayor, police chief, "white" and Arab hostage negotiators, François's estranged wife, and the media -- which to Akli's great annoyance doesn't even mention him, but describes his father as guilty of "barbaric" crimes back in the "bled," Algeria.

The suspense keeps ramping up, but it never gets in the way of the comedy as Akli's over-the-top obscenities, the passive-aggressive interactions among the three men, and events outside unfold. Akli arranges with his drug-dealer friend to extricate both the cocaine and him, and the Berger language they speak on their cell phones baffles the cops. François starts out a prisoner and finishes as an ally. Finally, the whole building and the one adjoining it in the complex joins in a tenants' revolt, pitching cheap furniture and malfunctioning appliances out of the windows as Akli/Salem composes rap lyrics celebrating his father, whom he'd thought a spineless victim of the colonials, as a hero back home after a secret is unearthed by the bailiff.

The cops are trigger-happy and the media and a police boss both delight in suggesting Akli is a "terrorist" (the buzz-word of the moment). The young man, his father, and the justice bureaucrat they loathed all turn out to have similar gripes against the French system -- as does the whole neighborhood. The Film ends with things up in the air, and sound over the closing credits is, of course, a French rap song.

The mixture of comedy, social commentary, and nail-biting action with a loaded gun and nervous snipers outside may be too complicated a mix to appeal to everybody, but Top Floor, Left Wing is an original, cleverly written, and very well acted film whose content will make it worth talking about. Girardot (Kings and Queen, Lady Chatterley, A Christmas Tale) and Fellag (The Barons) are pros who give subtle, realistic performances, but it's the younger actor, Aymen Saïdi, who give the picture its in-your-face vibrancy and life. The cinematography by Séraphine's Laurent Brunet and intricate set design by Christina Schaffer add to the quality.

Dernier étage gauche gauche opened in Paris November 17, 2010 to mixed reviews, which ranged from calling it a gem to damning it as well-intentioned but unfunny. Seen and reviewed as part of the March 3-14, 2011 Rendez-Vous with French Cinema in New York, presented by UniFrance and the Film Society of Lincoln Center at three locations, the Walter Reade Theater uptown, IFC Center downtown, and BAMcinétek in Brooklyn.

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