Review: Les Misérables
by Fabien Lemercier
- CANNES 2019: With his first fiction feature, Ladj Ly paints an intense and impactful portrait of the relations between police and young people in the Paris suburbs
“My friends, remember this, there are no bad plants or bad men. There are only bad cultivators.” It is with this quote from Victor Hugo that French filmmaker Ladj Ly closes Les Misérables [+see also:
interview: Ladj Ly
film profile], his very incisive first fiction feature, unveiled in competition at the 72nd Cannes Film Festival. And that is not a coincidence, since the famous novelist wrote part of the novel which gives the film its title in Montfermeil, a city some 11 miles away from Paris that serves as the exclusive and explosive setting for this film, a UFO in French film production. Under the appearances of history, very little seems to have fundamentally changed since the middle of the 19th century for the disadvantaged social classes, kept at a distance from the others like beasts in a cage, with the police acting as their wardens.
We are in the Bosquets neighbourhood and Chris (Alexis Manenti) leads the local daytime team of the BAC (Brigade Anti-Criminalité, or anti-criminality brigade). Considered by his superiors to be experienced, reactive, and sometimes a bit much, he describes the situation to his new colleague, Stéphane (Damien Bonnard), who has just been transferred from Cherbourg. In the patrol vehicle, Gwada (Djebril Zonga) completes the trio, and we quickly learn that the place used to be a hub of drug trafficking, but that the Muslim Brotherhood cleaned it up, which doesn’t keep the police from keeping a close watch in the face of “the brutality of the world around us”. The atmosphere is virile, and Stéphane is quickly given a nickname he absolutely does not like. He is also hazed a little when he is sent to blindly find information at Salah’s (Almany Kaoute), a former criminal now converted to religion who controls the neighbourhood.
Something happens while the team is on their routine patrol drive, during which Chris also behaves in a rather abuse way during an identity check. A lion cub has been stolen by a young boy from a visiting circus, whose members are threatening violent retaliation against “The Mayor” (Steve Tientcheu), a kind of alternative boss, paid by the municipality to keep the peace in the Bosquets. Our three policemen intervene and decide to find the culprit, who soon reveals himself on social media. But the arrest of Issa (Issa Perica), a 14-year-old repeat offender, goes very wrong and a drone piloted by Buzz (Al-Hassan Ly), another kid from the neighbourhood, has captured the whole scene. For Chris and Gwada, the question is now to first retrieve these images, which could incriminate them and set the city of fire, while Stéphane adopts a more ethical point of view on the situation. A general spiral of tension and animosity begins…
The film mixes profound realism, supported by precise details of the everyday life and popular culture of the neighbourhood’s inhabitants, with intense rhythm and a powerful visual energy sharpened up by the agile camera of cinematographer Julien Poupard (and the use of a drone intelligently integrated to the story). As such, Les Misérables imposes itself with great force thanks to characters which embody very credible figures, in a rough world where respect is a double-edged sword. Chris’ statement “I am the law here!”, shouted as he oversteps his role, echoes like a terrible observation. Through more than dynamic story, the film draws an uncompromising assessment of a place that we can neither understand nor help by observing it from the outside, with a manichaean attitude. In immersing us in that reality without resorting to thriller tropes, Ladj Ly wins his cinematic gamble of making visible from the inside the nuances of that area, and of exposing an acute problem of representation within French society. A society in which those very same young people from the Bosquets are actually, in a kind of prologue to the film, the first to participate in the collective euphoria of France’s victory at the World Cup, and the first to sing out the French hymn, La Marseillaise.
(Translated from French)
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