Director – Ladj Ly – 2019 – France – Cert. 15 – 104m
Exclusively in cinemas from Friday, September 4th
Although this takes its title from Victor Hugo’s eponymous novel, it’s not really an adaptation except in the loosest possible sense. It ends on a quote from the book:
“There are no bad plants, nor bad people – only bad cultivators.”
What it DOES have is a poor underclass and a bunch of cops whose job it is to keep them in order and keep the peace. An optimistic prologue shows the whole of France watching a world cup match and celebrating as France wins – a joyous, transcendent occasion and an example of how things could or ought to be.
Then it quickly shifts gear: three cops in their car patrol a poor housing estate. Chris (Alexis Manenti) is white with an in your face, tough guy approach that commands the residents ‘respect’. The equally tough and no-nonsense Gwada (Djebril Zonga) is black, generally more conciliatory and better at negotiating with local people on the ground. Newcomer Ruiz (Damien Bonnard), in his first day on the job, hails from the countryside and finds himself at odds with the approach of the other two, particularly Chris.
Director Ly, who co-wrote the screenplay, favours neither cops over civilians nor the other way round, preferring to paint a wider, more inclusive social picture. Thus, he sketches a number of complex characters on the estate. Issa (Issa Perica) is the kid constantly making bad decisions and finding himself in trouble with the Law or worse. Bespectacled teen Buzz (Al-Hassan Ly) is the geek who spends his time surreptitiously filming local girls in their apartments via mobile phone or drone.
The Mayor (Steve Tientcheu) is the respected black elder who with his subordinates tries to keep the place in order. Muslim patrols try to keep the peace, encouraging kids to behave in line with Muslim values, respect other people and visit the mosque.
Maybe a third of the way through, conflict erupts between the gypsy Zorro (Raymond Lopez) of Zeffirelli’s Circus and the people of the estate – one of whom, as Zorro correctly believes, has kidnapped his Little Johnny. Little Johnny, it turns out, is a baby lion cub. Zorro threatens trouble if the cub isn’t back with him in 24 hours.
Chris starts checking out social media believing that the residents do stupid things and brag about them: sure enough, Issa has photographed himself with the lion cub. Picking him up proves easier said than done. When the cops try to remove him from a ball game, the other boys hurl projectiles to aid his escape. Tensions run high, Gwada’s gun goes off and Issa is ‘face-blasted’. Buzz’s drone captures the whole incident on an SD card…
For the final reel, the three patrolling cops become trapped in a stairwell down which angry youths hurl shopping carts at them. Issa, fuelled by what he sees as injustice is unaware, like most of the kids around him, that the cops have averted a major conflict by returning Zorro’s lion cup and getting Issa to apologise for the theft. He wants revenge, firing incendiary projectiles at the cops from a home made bazooka. The film ends on a knife edge: will Issa toss a Molotov cocktail down the stairwell at the trapped, wounded cops or can Ruiz talk him out of it? Cue the aforementioned Victor Hugo quote.
If the performances impress and the restless, kinetic mis-en-scène constantly thrills, an underlying issue remains: the elephant, as it were, in the room. Many of the characters’ instinctive recourse to threat or violence doesn’t go anywhere positive. Chris’s incendiary policing style doesn’t help, but nor does the tribal mentality of the kids who stick up for one of their own regardless of whether or not Issa has done something wrong (which he has). Issa himself may get unjustly shot at close range, but he thinks it’s okay to steal and later takes it out on cops who’ve tried to bring him to book.
All of which makes for a compelling narrative even if it hardly seems on the same page as the unifying celebration at the start. This is not a story of justice and reconciliation. It’s rather a tale of confrontation which doesn’t appear to be a way forward to anything other than more confrontation. A bleak vision indeed.
Les Misérables is out exclusively in cinemas in the UK on Friday, September 4th.