‘Macadam Stories’ (‘Asphalte’): Cannes Review

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
Public housing has rarely seemed so playful 

Isabelle Huppert and Michael Pitt star in French director Samuel Benchetrit’s fifth feature

A quirky and endearing urban dramedy set within a run-down French apartment house, Macadam Stories (Asphalte) marks a strong fifth feature from the otherwise inconsistent writer-director-actor Samuel Benchetrit (I Always Wanted to Be a Gangster). Like a lighthearted Short Cuts transplanted to the grim Paris banlieue, this series of cleverly conceived vignettes is both amusing and tender, focusing on several downtrodden characters scraping by in a forgotten industrial wasteland. Strong art house casting – including Isabelle Huppert and Michael Pitt – should help the well-crafted effort find international takers after a premiere in Cannes.

Benchetrit won Sundance’s Best Screenplay prize in 2007 for Gangster, but his films since then have oscillated between overwrought comedy (Chez Gino) and autobiographical navel gazing (Un Voyage). So it’s nice to see him back in fine form here, with a warm homage to the kind of gloomy public housing block he grew up in during the 1980s (the screenplay – co-written with Gabor Rassov – was inspired by the director’s collection of short stories, Asphalt Chronicles).

Among the building’s diverse tenants are the terminally depressed Sternkowitz (Belgian comic-filmmaker Gustave Kervern), who in the opening scenes finds himself partially handicapped after what can best be described as an “exercise bike overdose.” Upstairs from him lives Charly (Jules Benchetrit), a teenage boy with permanently absent parents who befriends his new next door neighbor, the actress Jeanne Meyer (Huppert – basically playing herself). And finally there’s Madame Hamida (Tassadit Mandi), an Algerian immigrant whose son is in prison, and who finds her humdrum home life upended when an American astronaut (Pitt) suddenly knocks at her door.

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Cutting between the various narratives as each character is gradually transformed by the arrival of someone special in their lives, Benchetrit maintains a whimsical tone that finds humor in what could easily be heavy-handed despair – especially the story of Sternkowitz, who soon crosses paths with a lonely night nurse (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi) during his desperate nocturnal rounds. There are plenty of movies that reveal the sorry side of the gritty Paris suburbs, so it’s nice to see a filmmaker who can approach such a setting with plenty of playfulness, although Macadam Stories never resorts to mere feel-goodness in its depiction of urban isolation and strife.

Performances are sharp across the board, with Pitt providing several deadpan moments in Franglais and Huppert offering up a touching self-portrait as her character opens up to the smart and sassy young Charly, who’s well-played by Benchetrit’s own son. Tech credits are equally on the nose, with DP Pierre Aim (Polisse) filming in a crisp 1.33 format and production designer Jean Moulin doing a fantastic job creating each apartment’s uniquely drab decor. Locations are also expertly chosen, underlining the desolate no man’s land surrounding the complex: When Pitt’s character exits his space capsule in the middle of the banlieue, he’s truly stepping out onto a gray planet.

Production companies: La Camera Deluxe, Maje Productions, Single Man Productions
Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Michael Pitt, Gustave Kervern, Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi, Tassadit Mandi, Jules Benchetrit
Director: Samuel Benchetrit
Screenwriter: Samuel Benchetrit, Gabor Rassov
Producers: Ivan Taieb, Marie Savare, Julien Madon
Director of photography: Pierre Aim
Production designer: Jean Moulin
Costume designer: Mimi Lempicka
Editor: Thomas Fernandez
Composer: Raphael
International sales: TF1 International

No rating, 100 minutes