There are strange goings-on in the Stains suburbs of France, an assemblage of stark high-rise buildings that are home to a collection of everyday working-class people, the elderly, and rival gangs of drug dealers looking to consolidate their control over the area. Christophe (Jean-Baptiste Anoumon) has just been released from a three-year prison stint and returns home to find that things have changed. His estranged childhood friends, brothers Daniel (Max Gomis) and Joshua (Steve Tientcheu), are dealing on the sly, hoping not to run afoul of the “Ronin,” a roving pack of wild teenagers who have declared themselves masters of the entire housing project. As someone explains to Christophe, these kids are different — disinterested in money, and with no official leader, they are instead concerned with fairness and equality, although they’ll employ violent means to maintain their dominance. Much of the first half of the film charts these various shifting dynamics; Daniel is about to leave the country with his girlfriend and child to move to Canada, but can’t bring himself to tell Joshua or his running coach. Joshua is an inventor in his free time, tricking out his wheelchair to hide drugs from the Ronin and tinkering with something or other in the basement of his building. Christophe thinks that the Ronin dropped a dime on him to get him out of the way, and wants to rob their stash houses to get recompense for his time served. An aura of potential violence hangs over every scene, as various encounters threaten to tumble over from loaded conversation to outright warfare.
This is largely the stuff of “cinéma de banlieue,” a familiar genre of French cinema charting life in these suburban spaces typically home to the poor and immigrants. Writer/director Cédric Ido, himself French Burkinabe, knows the milieu well. But if The Gravity begins as something akin to La Haine, it gradually transforms into something much odder, and more interesting. Because while these characters act out their interpersonal conflicts, a strange cosmological event begins taking shape. Ido allows details to creep in slowly at first, mostly via TV news broadcasts emanating from the background; the planets are slowly converging in a once-in-a-lifetime happening, and commentators disagree on what, if any, effects this convergence might have on the Earth. Meanwhile, Ido and cinematographer David Ungaro slowly complicate the visual scheme of their film. Brief cutaways track the slow movements of various celestial bodies, while drone shots of the banlieue skyline take on the portentous dread of the long Steadicam shots in The Shining. The film slowly drains the life out of the banlieue until it seems populated only by the main characters and a seemingly endless number of Ronin, who have been driven mad by the convergence.
Ido, a self-confessed “fanboy,” seems determined to expand his narrative into increasingly strange, genre-adjacent digressions. There are comic book-style transitions between scenes, while the Ronin seem plucked from Walter Hill’s The Warriors. Things eventually deteriorate into outright horror territory, while an action sequence late in the film seems inspired by the concussive, blunt object-head trauma choreography favored by South Korean action movies (and the Oldboy hammer fight in particular). Even anime elements make an appearance, with a mech-like contraption that appears in a fist-pumping moment of triumph. It’s all very exciting, and while Ido risks absurdity with his disparate influences, he’s so gleefully committed to his scenario that it all somehow manages to work. It remains to be seen what kind of adventurous distributor might take a chance on such a strange, willful genre hybrid, or how they would even market it to an unsuspecting audience. But it’s a remarkable film, thrillingly unpredictable and even beautiful in its own way. Ido is a major talent, that’s for sure. We need more films like The Gravity, willing to bend and shape genre to its own idiosyncratic ends. In this sense, at least, it bears a resemblance to Clement Cogitore’s Sons of Ramses, another nocturnal excursion into the underbelly of French society. Make seeking this film out a priority.
DIRECTOR: Cédric Ido; CAST: Max Gomis, Jean-Baptiste Anoumon, Steve Tientcheu; DISTRIBUTOR: Dark Star Pictures; IN THEATERS: November 10; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 26 min.
Originally published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 10.