Asphalte (Macadam Stories) – Samuel Benchetrit

UnknownDrawing inspiration from two of his own novels,  Benchetrit has delivered a wonderfully surreal, funny, human drama set against the unlikely backdrop of a run-down housing estate in a featureless region of France.  While there have been no shortage of French films recently to use the infamous suburban Cités as the scene for gritty social commentary (Girlhood, Papa was not a Rolling Stone, Les Héritiers) Benchetrit pushes past the decay and squalor to find three genuinely heartwarming stories centred around loneliness and despair.  Asphalte is a true celebration of the odd and eccentric from the wheelchair-bound Sternkowitz (Gustave Kervern) who poses as a photographer to impress the woman he has fallen for, to the American astronaut (Michael Pitt) who is forced to hide out in the apartment of Madame Hamida, an Algerian immigrant, while NASA tries to cover up his botched space mission. There’s plenty of visual comedy too redolent of Jacques Tati or even Rowan Atkinson’s Mr Bean.  And a deceptively simple, sparse dialogue full of deadpan humour. Isabelle Huppert shows a marvellous streak of self-deprecation as a fading actress clinging onto past glories while Jules Benchetrit, the son of director Benchetrit and the late Marie Trintignant, is captivating as Huppert’s directionless, adolescent neighbour Charly.

Asphalte follows the adventures of six characters over the course of a couple of days. Sternkowitz is in a wheelchair after going-for-broke on a exercise bike in his front room.  He only goes out at night and on one of his outings he bumps into a night nurse (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) and the two strike up a stilted awkward friendship. Meanwhile, John McKenzie, an American astronaut re-entering the earth’s atmosphere after a solo mission in space, mistakenly lands on the roof of one of the estate’s tower blocks. He is welcomed into the apartment of Madame Hamida (Tassadit Mandi) and these two people from completely different cultures and with no common language manage to communicate and forge a genuine bond.  Soon after Jeanne Meyer (Huppert) moves onto the estate, she meets the young Charly (Benchetrit) who gradually helps her regain her self confidence.  None of these stories intertwine, yet the common theme of isolation draws them together into one beautifully satisfying cohesive narrative.
Benchetrit describes Ashpalte as a film about falling – Sternkowitz from his wheelchair, Meyer from her pedestal, McKenzie from outer space – and being saved.  Not a sentiment usually associated with daily life on a tough housing estate.  But Benchetrit, whose youth was spent on a housing complex similar to the one in Asphalte,  insists there is a real sense of community in these neighbourhoods.  And he has gathered together a fine cast of actors to bring this semi-autobriographical  story to life.  Huppert excels as the insecure, vodka-drinking actress whose career has fallen apart. After Guillaume Nicloux’s Valley of Love where she spent a lot of screen time slouching around in a ridiculous hat, here she spends most of the film wearing a cheap, tatty, bathrobe. This must make her one of the least vain actresses currently on screen.  Belgian actor Kervern (Dans La Cour) hits just the right note of melancholy to render his plight comical rather than pathetic. And Pitt (Seven Psychopaths) plays the bewildered American astronaut to perfection.
Benchetrit has had a rocky ride as a director since winning the screenwriters award for J’ai toujours rêvé d’être un Gangster at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.  His last two films – Un Voyage and Chez Gino – were mauled by critics.  But Asphalte could signal a welcome return to form.

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