Dir: Hiner Saleem. France, 2007. 100mins
This study of old age and solitude finds exiled Kurdish director Hiner Saleem divesting himself of the mischievous drive and wicked sense of humour which permeated such earlier efforts as Vodka Lemon and Kilometre Zero.
Launched in a light, warm and humanistic vein which keeps up for the entire first act before then descending intoabject misery, Beneath the Rooftops of Paris ultimately offers a terrified portrait of alienated life in the West. Saleem lives in the West right now, and apparently finds more reasons for despair and dejection than he ever faced downback home.
With the heavyweight presence of Michel Piccoli in the lead and with Robert Guediguian attached as one of the producers (his own films share something of the same critical spirit), this film's festival career is practically assured, with arthouse cinemas bound to be encouraged by critical praise.
Shot in a working class district of Paris, it opens on a scorching summer day and closes on a rainy, freezing cold winter night. It is the story of Marcel (Piccoli), an octogenarian living on his own in a wretched Barbes attic. In the early stages of thedrama he is surrounded by many characters, including near neighbours Amar (Benichou) who dreams of his own homeland and Bruno (Unel), a drug addict who shares his bed with pretty salesgirl Julie (Kremer).
Most importantly of all there is Therese (Demongeot), who waits tables at the corner bistro andretains a soft spot for the old man. But as time goes by, one-by-one they abandon him, each one drawn away by their own circumstances. Somewhere out there also lurks a son, who makes a fleeting appearance early on and then is gone for the rest of the movie.
Too proud to complain, Marcel is left to fend alone,negotiating the many flights of stairs he is obliged to climb everyday up to his infested garret, battling with the inclement weather and struggling with his own abject sense of loneliness.
Using a cinematic style developed to a high level of sophistication by that other director exiled in the West, Otar Iosseliani, Saleem displays a similarly splendid indifference to the restrictions of realistic story-telling. Like Iosseliani, he deploys barely any plot to speak of. The state of things, as they really are, prevails as the object of his focus. Spoken language is superfluous and body language far more eloquently expressive than the two dozen lines of text mumbled by the characters.
The difference is that in looking at the world from his own particular point of view, Iosseliani has come up with an ironical but profoundly human vision, reflecting the absurdity of life, which, by the way, encompasses death as well. Saleem on the other hand starts from the same premise (a swimming pool scene is as good as anything Iosseliani has ever done) but reaches vastly different conclusions.
Life is bearable, possibly even enjoyable up to a certain point, despite the dismal poverty of Marcel and his friends. But it all leads to a vale of tears, at least from where Saleem looks at it. And if Marcel really is a kind of Everyman, whose fate is a metaphor of the human condition, what waits in store for him at the end of life is much worse than death itself.
If, for the first half hour, the routine lives of Marcel and Amar are followed with a distinctive degree of deadpan humour, once tragedy sets in the film takes a turn towards pathetic self-righteousness. When neighbour Bruno dies of an overdose, massive doses of pity invade what should have been an objective, dispassionate observation on the part of the director. With more piled each passing minute, finally it becomes unbearable.
Even Michel Piccoli, experienced and brilliant though he is, cannot help piling up visible melodramatic tricks to illustrate the frailties of poor Marcel, subjected to not only to the iniquities of human fate but the inconsiderate ruthlessness of a human script. The rest of the cast have an easier time, with Benichou a worthy partner to Piccoli for as long as he is allowed to stay around.
Marie Kremer sympathetically picks up where he leaves off and Mylene Demongeot, once a steamy sex kitten best-known from the French screen in the fifties, proves resurgant in a supporting but moving role, as theageing waitresswhose affectionate presence both opens and closes the film.
Technical credits, starting with Andreas Sinanos' camera,ring with echoes of French chansons, recalling how there was once a classic film with an identical title. But make no mistake - there is nothing in common between Saleem's profoundly pessimistic take on the end of life in modern in Paris of the early 21st century and the youthful optimistic charm of Rene Clair's early thirties romance.
AGAT Films & Cie