"Macadam Stories": A Low Key Comedy of Human Errors

in 26th Stockholm International Film Festival

by Yael Shuv

A clueless American astronaut who lands on top of a rundown public housing building somewhere in France, a lonely tenant who lives on the first floor and would rather commit to never using the elevator rather than pay his share in its maintenance, and a has been actress who can’t seem to come to grips with her current situation are the protagonists of the three separate stories that converge in Macadam Stories (Asphalte), Samuel Benchetrit’s FIPRESCI winning film at the Stockholm International Film Festival.

In general I am not a great fan of anthological films, which too often give the impression that the lazy screenwriter didn’t try hard enough to think up one fully developed story with fully drawn characters.  However, this wasn’t the case at the festival’s Open Zone section this year, in which three of the best films were constructed of three separate stories that echo each other and create a rich cinematic and human experience. The other two were Matteo Garrone’s Tale of Tales (Il racconto dei racconti) and Dalibor Matanic’s The High Sun (Zvizdan) – both have already garnered much attention in Cannes earlier this year.

According to Wikipedia, Macadam is a type of road construction pioneered by Scottish engineer John Loudon McAdam around 1820, in which Single-sized aggregate layers of small stones, with a coating of binder as a cementing agent, are mixed in an open-structured roadway. This works nicely as a metaphor for the construction of Benchetrit’s film. Though the protagonists of the three stories all live in the same building, and though the main fear of Sterkowitz (filmmaker and actor Gustave Kervern) is that he would be caught using the elevator despite his pledge not to, none of the characters run into each other, which emphasizes their solitude. But they are all interconnected through other cinematic means. All of them are inspired in very different ways by what they see on their TV screens, and all of them are puzzled by a strange recurring sound which seems to be some sort of a representation of divinity, until we find its very earthly origin in the last ironic shot of the film.

These narrative strings are there to weave a human web of urban loneliness, caused by the environment but more so by the characters’ own psyche and the limitations they put upon themselves. It’s an insightful, melancholic and tender comedy, filled with quirky deadpan humor.

After a stroke that puts him in a wheelchair, Sterkowitz would rather use the elevator in secret – which forces him to wait until the very late hours of the night – rather than humble himself and ask his neighbors to show him the solidarity that he took himself out of. This leads him to search for nourishment in a vending machine at the hospital, where he meets an insecure night nurse (the ever touching Valeria Bruni Tedeschi). He introduces himself as a National Geographic photographer like the French speaking Clint Eastwood he saw earlier on TV in The Bridges of Madison County. To convince her of his vocation he salvages his dead mother’s old Polaroid camera from the box on top of the shelf and steals photos from his TV screen. The hesitant dialogues between the suspicious nurse and the pretender are beautifully written and presented, and it all leads to a comic and yet heroic journey, which sort of redeems Sterkowitz’ earlier failures as a man, despite the symbolic image of the empty camera.

The absence of the mother, or a son, is another motif that connects the three stories. 17 year old Charly (Jules Benchetrit, the director’s son) seems to connect with his mother only through notes that she leaves for him when she goes to work. All alone in his apartment, Charly develops an interest in the new neighbor next door, an aging former movie star whom he has never heard of. Jeanne Meyer (Isabelle Huppert having fun making fun of herself) refuses to settle in her new apartment and open the boxes, because she believes this setback is only temporary. Waltzing around like a diva, the only thing she does take out of the box is a video of an old film of hers (a clip from Claude Goretta’s 1977 The Lacemaker disguised in black and white), which she watches together with Charly. The levelheaded kid now has a new appreciation for the much older woman and tries to help her win a role in a play by directing her in a video audition (in what I found to be the least convincing scene in the film).

The third, most moving story, has a mother, but this time the son is missing, locked away in some institution, which is why Madame Hamida (Tassadit Mandi) happily adopts the lost American astronaut (Michael Pitt in a well-judged comic form) who knocks on her door, not questioning the strangeness of his appearance. In one of the best bits of humor in the film, when McKenzie calls NASA he is put on hold and gets to hear The Blue Danube Waltz – a droll wink at 2001: Space Odyssey. The lost American who fell down from the sky and the Algerian immigrant do not share a language, but they manage to converse via good will and a shared interest in a TV soap opera, managing even to formulate a poetic idea about God.

As we wrote in our motivation for choosing to award this film with the FIPRESCI prize, the three stories are seamlessly interwoven around the themes of loneliness and longing for human connection, all beautifully drawn, highly nuanced and perfectly paced, while the excellent performances allow the characters humanity to shine through the cracks.

Yael Shuv