Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Oct 25, 2015 6:32 am 
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Three little Paris cité vignettes

The whimsy makes one think of Roy Andersson, but Bencherit limits himself to three tales (two from a book he wrote) related to a dreary Paris cité with a faulty elevator -- a setting he knew himself growing up. Three odd couples. A loser in a wheelchair called Sternkowitz (Gustave Kervern) who flirts with a sad night nurse in a hospital (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi); a teenager called Charly (Benchetrit's son Jules) who's fascinated by Jeanne Meyer, a washed-up, alcoholic actress (Isabelle Huppert) who's his new neighbor; and, believe it or not, a NASA astronaut called John McKenzie (Michael Pitt) whose space landing gets botched so his pod bangs down on the cité roof and he falls for several days into the care of a lonely Algerian lady, Madame Hamida (Tassadit Mandi). In a structure of such implausibility, how Benchetit engineers his connections and intercuts them may be more interesting than the slim content. And where nothing is real, the most far-fetched match between Madame Hamida and the astronaut turns out to be the warmest. Mandi and Pitt, speaking different languages (French, English) work out understandings based on soap opera plots and couscous. They may be playing stereotypes -- the gemütlich Arab mom, the homespun techno Yank -- but they both play warmly and without affectation.

Sternkowitz may seem a lynchpin of the piece, a Jewish character in a tale the filmmaker thinks marked by Jewish humor. He is the sole resident at the outset who refuses to chip in for repair of the elevator, because he lives on the second floor and doesn't need it. He is allowed to opt out only on condition he will never use the elevator. Then he gets an exercise bike and OD's on it, riding the equivalent of 1,000 km. This lands him in the hospital with damaged legs, hence the wheelchair -- and his need to use the elevator surreptitiously. And hence his late night trips back to the hospital -- its junk food machines are his sole source of sustenance-- and his encounters with the night nurse, smoking on her break. Enamored of her, he cooks up a story that he's a National Geographic photographer searching for subject matter to impress her. Meanwhile PItt lands on the roof observed by two apathetic teens, and is taken in by Madame Hamida, while staccato interchanges come and go between Jeanne Meyer and the curious Charly (Jules Benchetrit).

I knew Gustave Kervern from Pierre Salvadori's tediously downbeat In the Courtyard (RV-2014); he seems to be typecast lately as a loser. Her role doesn't give Bruni Tedeschi a chance to do much. Nor does Huppert's, though there is a tiny self-reflective shiver to be had from imagining her career all downhill from The Lacemaker, which she shows a video of to Charly, who encourages her to stop moping and try out for a role. Jules Benchtrit gets props for holding his own with the diminutive diva, and doubtless will be seen again. My best memory will be of Pitt leaving the cité in a spacesuit cradling a plastic box of homemade couscous. But to be honest this movie is too ephemeral to leave a strong impression.

Asphalte, AKA "Macadam Stories," 100 mins., debuted at Cannes (Special Screenings) May 2015; a few minor fests. In French theaters from 7 Oct and the French critics liked it pretty well (AlloCiné press rating 3.6). Screened for this review at MK2 Hautefeuille 25 Oct. 2015.

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