Truth and Movies

Les Misérables

Review by David Jenkins @daveyjenkins

Directed by

Ladj Ly

Starring

Alexis Manenti Damien Bonnard Djebril Zonga

Anticipation.

Picked over Portait of a Lady on Fire as France’s International Feature Oscar submission.

Enjoyment.

Lots of meaty confrontation, but all feels a tad generic by the final stretch.

In Retrospect.

A politically-charged urban western. Will keep an eye out for Ly’s follow-up.

The hardships of daily life in one of Paris’ toughest neighbourhoods are captured in Ladj Ly’s La Haine-esque debut.

When social deprivation plummets to a level where young lads think nothing of stealing a lion cub from a travelling circus, then you know things have gotten out of hand. Yet this is exactly what’s happening in the Parisian banlieu of Montfermeil, where schisms along all lines are turning high-rise estates into hives of lawlessness.

And when people are unable to live peaceably and harmoniously, and feel that it’s A-Okay to just steal a lion, the police then feel they’re empowered to employ slightly off-the-books oppression in order to retain a semblance of order. Put simply, they can rough people up on their rounds and there’s not a sweet thing that can be done about it.

Ladj Ly’s debut feature, Les Misérables, is ripped from personal experience and set on the infamous housing estate “les Bosquets”. It follows the professional baptism of fire experienced by hair gel addict rookie cop Stéphane (Damien Bonnard) who, on his first day, escapes the clutches of death a number of times. He cruises along with Djebril Zonga’s chill urban warrior, Gwada, and Alexis Manenti’s gale-force rageoholic, Chris, as the team spend their day harassing randos and throwing their weight about like ginned-up rustlers.

The incident with the lion cub occurs, a hubbub ensues, the trigger on a flash ball gun goes off and, in the residual heat of France’s 2018 World Cup victory, a full-scale meltdown seems inevitable. Plus, regular hush-up tactics don’t apply in this case, as a bothersome drone-cam being flown by one of the young residents, catches the whole incident from on high.

The film comes across as a less stylised, less self-consciously poetic (but no less effective) update of Mathieu Kassovitz’ powder-keg 1995 feature, La Haine, which introduced the world to the horrors of daily life outside the snow globe of central Paris.

It’s the type of film you’d expect concerned politicos to watch and then solemnly announce that they now understand the work that needs to be done in areas rife with poverty, while also acknowledging the institutional rot within the police force – and then take no further action. In his direction and writing (the latter completed in collaboration with Giordano Gederlini and Alexis Manenti), Ly apportions blame fairly, and to be honest, there’s no one here to root for save the hapless Stéphane, and even he turns the odd blind eye to Chris’ berserko outbursts.

Aside from its admirable sense of moral objectivity, the film also purrs along nicely as a slick thriller that arrives at a satisfyingly bombastic climax in which fireworks are repurposed as ad hoc bazookas in order to send those dirty pigs a skin-searing lesson they’ll never forget. If the film has an issue, it’s that the plotting is too fastidious, and everything fits together a little too neatly.

The chaotic aspect of the situation is captured in the many bouts of group shouting, but then most of the supporting cast operate like they would in a genre film rather than real life. Plus, the moment where the drone just happens to hover over the pivotal altercation does feel a tad far-fetched, even with the reams of portentous build-up that is front-loaded into the plot.

Published 2 Sep 2020

Tags: Ladj Ly

Anticipation.

Picked over Portait of a Lady on Fire as France’s International Feature Oscar submission.

Enjoyment.

Lots of meaty confrontation, but all feels a tad generic by the final stretch.

In Retrospect.

A politically-charged urban western. Will keep an eye out for Ly’s follow-up.

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