Cannes 2015: In Samuel Benchetrit’s “Asphalte” surrealism is moving to the Parisian suburbs (review)

Small everyday stories of surrealism and tenderness in a disarming film about loneliness, the time that passes and a NASA astronaut easting couscous!

In a social housing building on the outskirts of Paris reside all sorts of people: a stingy loner who refuses to pay for the repair of the elevator because he stays on the first floor, a young man who says he lives with his mother whom we never see, a former actress who refuses to believe she has aged, an Algerian mother who pays frequents visits to her son in jail …

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Everyone’s daily life, however, will soon take a more unexpected, surreal turn.

The lone man will be forced to sit in a wheelchair, calculating the hours he can use the elevator without being seen by the other tenants and on one of his evening outings he will meet a nurse and introduce himself as a photographer. The young of the last floor will fall in love with the actress who moves opposite and the Algerian lady would receive he visit of a NASA astronaut.

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Somewhere between Roy Andersson’s cinema (without the latter’s strong symbolism) and an American independent look on the everyday strange, Samuel Benchetrit, the erstwhile Sundance winner for “J’ai Toujours Rêvé d’être un Gangster” but also poet, screenwriter, actor and director, creates with “Asphalte” a map of contemporary urban loneliness, framing a talkie with a silent film aesthetics and in an academic square frame that quickly makes the paradox seem normal and the mysterious just a bit above the existential.

Beautifully photographed (every scene is a small pop art tableau), bitterly funny (and vice versa), with a melancholy that rivals the suburbian steppe and with the need for communication being almost a survival guide. Benchetrit builds a modular comic mosaic where one could fit stories he once heard happening somewhere far away – something like urban legends, like the noise heard at intervals (a wonderful leitmotif that permeates the film throughout) that the film’s heroes believe to be a child screaming or a hungry tiger or a demon who is ready to devour them all.

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When Benchetrit distances himself from surrealism and madness – exactly here he should probably instead send his stories even to further extremes – the weirdness vacuum is filled with the tenderness and his wonderful actors: Valeria Bruni – Tedeschi’s way of standing and speaking while smoking, the look of Michael Pitt in one of the best roles of his career, Benchetrit’s irresistible teenager son, Jules, Gustave Kervern’s tragically comic persona and of course the final scene dedicated to Isabelle Huppert where a disarmingly heartbreaking and almost autobiographical monologue concludes in the best possible way a “strange” beautiful film that is impossible to resist.

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More Cannes 2015 reviews:

– Maïwenn’s “Mon Roi” leaves men viewers vexed (review)

– Never has a forbidden love been as beautiful as in Todd Haynes’ “Carol’ (review)

– Gus Van Sant presents “The Sea of ​​Trees”, one of the worst films you ever saw! (review)