Every scene but one of this extraordinary film by first-time director (and co-writer) Ladj Ly takes place in Montfermeil, the impoverished high-rise suburb of Paris, where Ly was raised and still lives and where Victor Hugo set part of his epic 1862 novel—the source of the suburb’s nickname, “Les Misérables.” The exception is the first scene, with the Arc de Triomphe in the distance, featuring thousands of ecstatic soccer fans celebrating a victory of the French national team, with its many players of African descent, singing “La Marseillaise,” exuding their Frenchness. Among the boisterous, flag-waving celebrants is Issa, one of the film’s main characters, a child of African descent, and the one who sets its plot in motion. Issa is joyful and playful, playful even as he engages in the minor, idiosyncratic delinquencies of childhood, which will have consequences he cannot imagine or understand. He’s one of the film’s innocents—until he isn’t.
A second of the film’s innocents is Brigadier Stéphane Ruiz (soon to be known as “Greaser,” a sobriquet he dislikes), an empathetic Damien Bonnard. A white, small-town policeman with community-policing instincts, Ruiz joins a heavy-handed, hard-nosed special crimes unit (SCU)—of 3, including him—charged with “keeping order” in Montfermeil’s charged atmosphere. Ruiz has experience but not with an SCU. He’s a deer-in-headlights in Montfermeil, where his unit operates through harassment, threats, and force. In the heart-stopping scene that ends the film, Ruiz will find himself trapped in a dark, smoky, barricaded apartment stairwell, confronting a malevolent version of the crowd that opens the film. So much for innocence. What happened?
The simplest answer is the bad “I am the law” cop, Chris (Alexis Manenti), the head of the SCU. Chris, who’s white, and his black partner Gwada (Djebril Zonga) patrol the zone in an unmarked car and in street clothes, while Ruiz wears a bullet-proof vest and “Police” armband. Chris isn’t stupid; he understands the role of the social media in police work, he knows when it’s vital to diffuse inter-group conflict, and he’s been doing the job for a decade—but he’s loathe to back down, fearful of showing weakness, and willing to consider frisking a 15-year-old girl for possible possession of marijuana just to harass—and potentially sexually harass—her.
Ly’s story is more interesting and complex than a focus on Chris would suggest. The larger problem is that the community has been abandoned by any legitimate civic force. It is “governed” or managed by powerful, informal groups, akin to the Mafia or old-time political bosses. They distrust and dislike each other, and they’re not interested in turning the boys and girls into men and women; the kids are at best an annoyance. There’s the black “Mayor” of Montfermeil, a sometimes police collaborator (Steve Tientcheu) and his entourage, a secular bunch; the Gypsies, brutes with crude weapons who put on the circus, led by hot-headed Zorro (Raymond Lopez); and an underworld drug dealer. Salah (Almamy Kanouté) and his Muslim Brotherhood appear to be the best of the lot—they mouth the right words about the children behaving themselves and all that—but they’re hypocrites, enticing the kids to a back-of-the-yards falafel-fest (the price is religious instruction), then denying them the food they promised.
The transformation of Issa (a beguiling Issa Perica) is at the center of the story. It begins with a prank that puts Issa in conflict with the out-of-control circus Gypsies. With Chris and his unit in charge, Issa experiences a series of injuries, humiliations, and traumas, one of them—almost too frightening to watch—at the hands of the lion tamer, Zorro. Chris’s worst impulses get ramped up when Buzz (Al-Hassan Ly), another young innocent and a bit of a voyeur, films some less-than-stellar police work while flying a drone; the memory card threatens the existence of the SCU and becomes a weapon of power among the community’s factional “leaders.”
“Les Misérables” is exciting, scary, depressing, tragic—and riveting. Ly is savvy enough in his directing to show some of the 3 cops’ home lives, reflections of their work attitudes, and the kids’ resourcefulness in their play—since adults provide no guidance in their lives. One wonders if the parents of Montfermeil are as absent and non-caring as the film suggests. Within the film, at least, the lack of responsible parenting creates a space in which Chris, the Mayor, Zorro, and the others can do their damage. Without more information, it’s also difficult to know if Ly’s description of the community, including the outsized role of Chris’s team and the absence of legitimate local governance, accurately depicts on-the-ground realities or whether the director has taken liberties to frame a compelling story. The film closes with these lines, quoting Hugo: “There are no bad seeds or bad men. There are only bad cultivators.”
In the end, the kids want justice, and when they can’t get it from the Mayor (whose task it is in the community’s informal system), well, they’re going to get it their own way.
“Battle of Algiers” meets “Lord of the Flies.” A worthy winner of the Cannes Jury Prize, among many other awards, and nominee for the Academy’s Best International Film Feature.
3.5 Stars (out of four stars)
Director: Ladj Ly
Starring: Damien Bonnard, Alexis Manenti, Djebril Zonga, Issa Perica, Al-Hassan Ly, Steve Tientcheu, Almamy Kanouté, Raymond Lopez.
Language: French, subtitled in English
Runtime: 104 minutes
Oscar Nomination: Best International Film Feature, so it should be back/should be streaming “soon” – stay tuned
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