Linked by a housing project, six characters in varying degrees of desperation forge unexpected friendships in “Macadam Stories,” a slight comedy from French helmer-author Samuel Benchetrit, whose book “Asphalt Chronicles” inspired two of the three strands. Sometimes funny, and always, insistently low-key, this deadpan offering presents a gentle cross-section of life in public housing, a milieu that — per press notes — Benchetrit knows from childhood. This unassuming pic will attract fests looking a light slot-filler, but like previous features from the director (“I Always Wanted to Be a Gangster,” which won a screenwriting award at Sundance), it’s unlikely to make much of a splash Stateside.
Before it reveals that it will crosscut among three stories, the movie begins with residents of the housing project meeting to vote on an elevator repair. Sternkowitz (Gustave Kervern) is the only one reluctant to pay. He asks why he — as a resident of the second floor — should pony up for an elevator he doesn’t use. “Ever hear of solidarity?” the incredulous meeting leader asks. (Making Sternkowitz a miser feels like an unfortunate bit of stereotyping, though Benchetrit, who is partly Jewish, according to interviews, says in the press kit that he sees “Macadam Stories” as a “Jewish storyteller’s film.”)
A deal is struck: Sternkowitz can avoid paying as long he never uses the elevator. But following a day-into-night-into-day exercise-bike workout that might well carry him the distance of the Tour de France, Sternkowitz finds himself in a wheelchair — meaning that he’ll have to make his elevator usage a covert op. Venturing outside the complex for food, Sternkowitz strikes up a friendship with a nurse (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi), for whom — in the movie’s most precious conceit — he passes himself off as a photographer.
In another thread, Charly (Jules Benchetrit, the director’s son) helps a neighbor (Isabelle Huppert) who is still unpacking. She turns out to be a fading movie star named Jeanne Meyer. (According to the credits, a clip we see of her in an old film comes from 1977’s “The Lacemaker.”) Charly not only assists Jeanne with impromptu locksmithing and a bit of elevator trouble, but also convinces her that it’s time to take on a new role, playing a woman considerably older than she sees herself.
In the third segment, John McKenzie (Michael Pitt), an American astronaut, lands his capsule on the roof of the project. He winds up in the apartment of the kindly Mrs. Hamida (Tassadit Mandi), an Algerian immigrant whose reaction to the spacesuit-wearing stranger in her home is “poor thing.” The Americans need a few days to stage a cover-up for the landing botch and won’t retrieve John until then. During the wait, the odd couple bond despite the language barrier: John reveals details from an old soap opera that Mrs. Hamida watches (“Henry kills his father. But it’s not his father”). Mrs. Hamida, lonely with her son (Abdelmadjid Barja) in prison, makes John couscous, in the closest thing “Macadam Stories” offers to a dramatic climax.
The deadpan style suggests a twee-ified Jim Jarmusch. Benchetrit shows a knack for one-liners and sight gags (a particularly amusing tableau finds a still-dogged Sternkowitz with his face planted on the exercise bike’s control panel), which provide a leavening contrast to the graffiti’d scenery and ashen, Roy Andersson-style palette. But in the end, “Macadam Stories” is too innocuous to leave much of an impression.