As has already been pointed out, the title of Ladj Ly’s debut feature is a kind of piss-take on the classic Victor Hugo opus, a move that both provokes curiosity and confounds expectations. It is about “poor people” in the sense that a put-upon population is pitted against their so-called betters, but Hugo’s story was classist to the core, while Ly’s is more about conflict born of authoritarianism. The “betters” in his case are represented solely by the local police contingency in the Paris banlieu of Montfermeil, where immigrant cultures live in various states of near-destitution. Crime is not exactly rampant here, but it is a mode of survival and thus the tension between the residents and the cops is ever-present and prone to eruptions of emotional if not physical violence.
Ly starts out in fourth gear, with footage of France’s 2018 World Cup victory sparking joyful dancing in the streets that takes the viewer from the center of Paris to Montfermeil, where the celebrations are nipped in the bud by the police, though Ly wisely focuses on one patrol car manned by three members of the Street Crimes Unit, two of whom are thugs. The third, Ruiz (Damien Bonnard), is a novice on his first outing, and his discomfort is palpable as his partners harass teenagers gratuitously and destroy a girl’s cell phone when she has the audacity to record said harassment. Ly gives the cops a certain measure of benefit-of-the-doubt by presenting life in the neighborhood as being as much dog-eat-dog as just-getting-by, especially in his finely attuned presentation of the gangs who mostly run things here. As it turns out, the police rely as much on these ad hoc semi-criminal organizations as they do on their sense of entitlement to keep the peace. The problem is that some youth in the community trust neither the police nor the gangs, who are run by adults just as dismissive of their needs as the authorities are.
Ly further complicates this delicate dynamic by making one of the bad cops, Gwada (Djibril Zonga), a Malian, just like the director, and while he isn’t as boldly offensive as his white partner, Chris (Alexis Manenti), it’s clear he resents where he came from and feels protective of his hard-won position in the SCU, a combination of factors that leads to a sub-tragedy of its own. Meanwhile, Ruiz observes all these interactions with growing alarm, sensitive to the possibility that it could all blow up into something much worse than the kind of tantrums the police normally deal with. The disaster, in fact, is sparked by Ly’s only real miscalculation in the production, the pursuit of a scamp named Issa (Issa Perica) for the theft of a lion cub from a Romanian circus. When the cops try to arrest Issa, Gwada injures him badly and the scuffle is caught on camera by a drone piloted by another minor resident, Buzz (Al-Hassan Ly), who is more interested in sexual voyeurism than catching police in the act. It doesn’t matter, because so many parties—not just the cops, but the gangs, also—have a stake in keeping matters under wraps that Buzz now becomes the object of pursuit, or, more exactly, the SD card in his drone does.
Though Ly keeps the action taut and the emotions suitably fraught, the confluence of plot elements that bring on the apocalyptic ending feel more contrived than they need to be, which is a minor fault but a major distraction. Les Miserables uses documentary styling to full effect but its action movie storytelling compromises the overall impact.
In French. Now playing in Tokyo (check first to see if theaters are open) at Shinjuku Musashinokan (03-3354-5670), Bunkamura Le Cinema (03-3477-9264), Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608).
Les Miserables home page in Japanese.
photo (c) Srab Films Lyly Films Rectangle Productions