Les Misérables

France (2019) Dir. Ladj Ly

No matter where, if it is a predominantly white country there will always be racism and unrest with the black communities, a sad truth which was exposed to horrific levels over the past twelve months in the US and later on a wider scale. This French set entry into this increasingly unfortunate oeuvre of such stories is inspired by real events.

Police officer Stéphane Ruiz (Damien Bonnard) is transferred to Montfermeil, Paris, joining the SCU alongside leader Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Gwada (Djebril Zonga) in patrolling the ethnic community of Les Bosquets. A young criminal, Issa (Issa Perica) steals a lion cub from the local circus, causing owner Zorro (Raymond Lopez) to threaten the black leader, a man known as The Mayor (Steve Tientcheu), if the cub isn’t returned to him.

Vowing to find the cub, SCU suspect Issa, but when they go to question him, the other kids ambush them with rocks and bottles. In self-defence, Gwada wields a flash ball gun which accidentally goes off in Issa’s face. Worst still, the incident was filmed by a drone belonging to teenager Buzz (Al-Hassan Ly). Chris wants the footage to save their careers; The Mayor wants it to blackmail Chris into giving them a break.

For this debut feature by Ladj Ly, using the same title as Victor Hugo’s celebrated work is a bold move but a calculated one as the setting of this tale is the same place Hugo wrote his epic novel, as well as being the location for a key development in the story regarding the abuse of the ethnic poor. In essence, this is a very loose Les Misérables offshoot thematically but certainly not in content.

Ly based his script on the 2005 French riots which started after the death of three black teens being sought by police, which he first made as a short before expanding it for this Oscar nominated feature. It’s a morally ambiguous and boldly unflinching story with a cast made of mostly non-professionals for the younger and ethnic characters to give this an air of authenticity it would otherwise be lacking.

The last ten minutes of the film are utterly terrifying yet divisive at the same time due to the aforementioned opaque morality that led us to this point. Perhaps the scariest take away from this is not just how plausible this denouement is but also how close we are to this becoming a reality. But Ly knows he can’t be didactic on this issue as that solves nothing, so he paints a grim picture and lets the audience find its own truth from this upsetting and avoidable if sadly inevitable case of “What if…”

Getting to the literal explosive climax takes up the first hour of the film, as Ly introduces us to the location of Les Bosquets, the people who live there, and the SCU. Chris is a small white man who likes to throw his weight around because he has a badge that says he can. Maybe not openly or offensively racist, his skinhead appearance and tough approach on non-white members of the public has earned him the nickname Pink Pig.

Stéphane is naturally the idealist who abhors what he sees and prefers talking instead of bullying but Chris shouts loudest so they do things his way, and unfortunately, as the kids tend to run a soon as they see the SCU, then mouth off when confronted, it seems *maybe* Chris is justified in exerting his authority. Gwada is black yet never calls Chris out for his behaviour, often complicit in the rough treatment of the people they confront, young or old.

For some watching, this will seem like a cut and dried case and I’m sure Ly would expect the audience to side with the black community as a default position due to the outrage engendered by what is the topical issue of racial profiling by white police. However, by painting the criminals to be equally culpable in inciting the unrest through their unruly and aggressive behaviour, this is not possible.

Ultimately, and I assume this is Ly’s real point, we should be appalled at the situation as a whole, in how poorer communities are left to rot by governments creating a world where crime is a means of survival, and inherent racism has bred instinctive distrust in the police. This in turn has forced the police to be cautious as they know any situation involving minorities is likely to be combustible and fraught with tension, but some see this as their cue to go in full of suspicion, hostility and lawful prejudice.

Establishing a sort of middle ground in this particular narrative is the Muslim quarter of the community, led by Salah (Almamy Kanoute), a former criminal turned Muslim intent on maintaining the peace. Ironically, he pontificates about how tigers should be free and not kept in cages whilst making a kebab! In remaining impartial, Salah incurs the ire of both sides yet is the only one to presage the violent outcome they want to avoid.    

Certainly a visceral and provocative film at any time, in the current climate of the BLM movement it burns with a savagery that doesn’t intend to be prescient rather cautionary, but in hindsight finds itself in the zeitgeist it was afraid to predict. Ly’s direction is busy yet pointed, almost documentary style with it frantic camerawork that heightens the tension, terror, and claustrophobic panic of the incendiary final act.

His handling of the inexperienced young cast is to let them act as naturally as possible which I’m sure helps takes away a lot of pressure for them to perform and appreciate the gravity of the situations they are depicting. That said, it is difficult not to have some understanding of the issues driving the story, making Les Misérables a film of such power and urgency that any assumed morality is not with the winners or the loses but with those not taking part.

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