Rarely has a director’s terror of aging been so completely formulated as in “Beneath the Rooftops of Paris,” in which Kurdish helmer Hiner Saleem (“Vodka Lemon”) decamps to the City of Light for a largely wordless tale illustrating the decline of an elderly man in a dingy top-floor apartment. Delightful shots and clever images gradually fall along the wayside as the sustainability of Saleem’s style disappears, leaving a very perplexing aftertaste despite an award-winning perf from Michel Piccoli and the welcome presence of Mylene Demongeot. Strictly arthouse fare, even at home, pic won’t survive probably lukewarm word of mouth.
If only the first half-hour weren’t so promising, the end result wouldn’t be so puzzling. A scalding summer makes life in the upper reaches of a shabby apartment building difficult for Marcel (Piccoli) and his friend Amar (Maurice Benichou). Aside from frequent visits to the community pool, their one source of recreation is the local cafe, where waitress Therese (Demongeot) takes special care of Marcel, her favorite.
As autumn arrives, Marcel becomes more unsteady, his legs wracked by pains and his speech difficult. Amar has left, and the cafe has closed down. Marcel’s bourgeois son Vincent (Vincent Tepernowski) has little time for or interest in his dad, and only fellow resident Julie (Marie Kremer), a voluptuous young woman in trouble with the landlord (Serge Chambon), takes an interest. But even she doesn’t last, and Marcel’s physical decline is hastened by winter’s arrival.
The plot’s bare bones can’t capture the inventiveness and visual charms packed into the first quarter. A shot of Demongeot eating macaroons on the floor, while a cheap plastic fan blows around hot air, deliciously illustrates the small reliefs snatched at on a sweltering day. A glorious closeup of Piccoli and Demongeot, sharing a moment of tender silence and then dancing together in his scruffy kitchen, overflows with affection.
But then Saleem takes an unflinching, deeply troubled look at Marcel’s physical decline. Every frame acts like a mirror into a future Saleem holds up to himself, revealing his dread of the aging process. “How old am I?” repeatedly screams Therese’s mother (Mado Maurin), wheelchair-bound and half-crazed. The answer is 93, but Saleem clearly feels it would be better if she died like Bruno (Birol Unel), Julie’s fortysomething junkie b.f., who already shows signs of decline before he o.d.’s.
Visual style is sophisticated enough for the pic to practically dispense with dialogue and character development, especially with such fine vet thesps. Demongeot’s expressive eyes and strong physical presence hold every scene, though Piccoli gets the lion’s share of screentime. At the start, it’s a great role, completely lacking in mannerisms, but in the end it becomes nothing more than a study in decrepitude, “sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” Kremer is inserted simply to personify youth’s fresh skin, though what Unel, the Euro arthouse Seymour Cassel, is doing here remains a mystery.
Paris from the upper reaches looks expectedly beautiful, the Eiffel Tower in the distance acting almost like a taunt to the increasingly housebound Marcel. Music is used cleverly and, in the beginning, with a pleasing sense of humor, as when Unel appears to be mysteriously floating above Kremer to Verdi’s “Caro nome.” The landmark 1930 Rene Clair film of the same title also played with sound and silence, but that’s where any similarity ends.