When an unsuspecting bailiff shows up to collect an Algerian family’s debts, he definitely knocks on the wrong door in “Top Floor, Left Wing,” writer-director Angelo Cianci’s grippingly clever hostage drama-cum-sociopolitical satire. This deftly realized and energetically thesped scenario uses one apartment, three principals and a busload of trigger-happy cops to explore the strained relationships between the French authorities and the notoriously unruly suburbs, combining a nail-biting ambience with stabs of humor and cross-cultural bonding. Pic could cause a local stir when released later this year, and should negotiate a ransom of fests and Francophone arthouses, with some offshore potential.
Since the 2005 riots, the French banlieue have been the inspiration for a wide range of movies, from bombastic actioners (“From Paris With Love”) to intimate arthouse meditations (“35 Shots of Rum”). For his feature-length debut, Cianci has chosen a single, claustrophobic location and timeframe, condensing lots of contemporary malaise into a pressure-cooker of emotions, conflicts and, above all, a gargantuan failure to communicate.
The catalyst is snarky huissier de justice Francois (Hippolyte Girardot), who, along with a handful of cops, enters a rundown housing project to take inventory of the belongings of Algerian tenant Mohand (Fellag) and his twentysomething son, Salem (Aymen Saidi). Such an everyday occurence quickly explodes into a local crisis when Salem, who’s holding a stockpile of cocaine for a local dealer, takes Francois hostage by gunpoint in exchange for — well, it’s not exactly clear what Salem wants, if not to bide himself some time.
If Salem’s motivations are questionable, his father’s are complicated by a murky past in his native country, while Francois turns out to be less the innocent victim than a source of increasing tension, especially when he snidely criticizes Salem’s thug attitude. As the police presence mounts and the media coverage — including suspicions of international terrorism — balloons out of proportion, the three men, who start off with nothing in common, all wind up having their own bones to pick with the French system.
Mixing moments of hilarity with bouts of nerve-wracking action involving a loaded gun, trained snipers and a makeshift peephole, the helmer keeps things fluid and engaging, if only for a few lags that could be removed with some additional edits. And although we rarely leave the apartment, the roving widescreen camerawork by Laurent Brunet (“Seraphine”) and Christina Schaffer’s set design make the pic visually potent.
Vets Girardot (“A Christmas Tale”) and Fellag (“The Barons”) both deliver sly and solid performances, but the real star here is Saidi, who turns the erratic and foul-mouthed Salem into someone we want to root for.