Les misérables

France, 2019

Directed by Ladj Ly

With Damien Bonnard (Stéphane), Alexis Manenti (Chris), Djebril Zonga (Gwada), Issa Perica (Issa), Al-Hassan Ly (Buzz), Steve Tientcheu (Le Maire), Almamy Kanoute (Salah)

After the long, tough, terrible workday that makes up the long first part of the film come a long series of shots focusing on the cops as they come back to their homes and the few inhabitants of the Parisian suburb of Montfermeil they have clashed with, silently reflecting on the events. This a long pause in the turmoil life in such neglected places across urban France tends to be, quiet images bathing in the warm colors of the end of a summer day, ordinary scenes of intimacy. It eventually culminates with a talk between two of the special crime-busting unit the film tracks that should have been a moment of reconciliation but just emphasizes the gulf between two opposite temperaments, a friendly chat that ends up overwhelmed by the bitter tension that has run throughout the day. Conflict lurks in the background but the pause is for real and casts the characters under another light, the cops as ordinary people trying to connect with kids and mothers, the others as thoughtful individuals yearning for something else.

These brief, delicate notes appended to the previous descriptions of these characters as they were caught into their roles and actions, most of the time awfully unfortunate actions, widen the perspective and thus fit into a broader endeavor nicely encapsulates by the aerial images of the suburban town taken by a drone, which has also played a big part in the frenzy and violence of that day because indeed it captured the most tragic event from high above. Even when the drone is out, broken into pieces by the cops, its vision carries on, it seems: this is a film intent on conveying a wide, comprehensive, encompassing view on the place and even more on the humans stranded there. The dramatic clashes on the street level or in staircases may drive the narrative but the film refuses to be solely a gritty tale of good and bad people with a social interest and a lot of actions: it looks for a broad picture of the realities and complexities that define life for the people and the place. The film features what is called God’s eye views, taken from high above; it does, indeed, like to look at this world with the distance of a god.

On the beat and on edge: Damien Bonnard, Alexis Manenti and Djebril Zonga (from left to right)

The choice of opening the story with stunning pictures of thrilled and ravished crowds celebrating at the heart of Paris the victory of the French team in the final game of the 2018 Soccer World Cup states in the plainest terms the people from Montfermeil and elsewhere do belong to the wider nation and are as proud of it than the rest of the citizenry but the fact remains that below that smiling feeling of unity lies deep fissures; the contrast between the Parisian streets and the thoroughly derelict buildings and drab corners where the youngsters we have just watched happily merging with the celebrating crowds is poignantly stark and is a sobering reminder of the social inequalities these suburban people must grapple with. The sweeping vision, once again, defined by the film, moves from the broad, brilliant image of the nation to the precise depiction of its underbelly.

These social problems fuel crimes and misdemeanors on a large scale, vindicating the presence of a special police force made up of hard-boiled policemen using harsh tactics. That does not mean all criminals are treated the same way and with the same dispatch: catching young smoking pot seems a more pressing matter than watching a dubious nightclub whose owner likes to cut deal with the police, it should be said. More broadly, dealing with a big shot is acknowledged as the best way to contain troubles, which in this case favors a strapping, bad-mouthed and brutal fellow whose name conveniently suggests a legitimate power – Le Maire, that is The Mayor. But complicating things, the bad guys must take into account the increasing influence of Islamist militants, led by a stern kebab vendor, Salah, who try with a measure of success to keep kids from dabbling into drugs and crimes, which brings some relief to the police, alleviating their workload, in a perhaps too pragmatic way. The film offers a remarkably rich and nuanced view on the forces competing for the local population’s allegiance, describing in the rawest way the power play between various social actors, none of which demonstrating satisfying behaviors and honest ambitions.

The plot leading the audience through this worn-out social fabric is a rookie’s tale. This is the first day of work at the police unit for Stéphane, who has started his career in law enforcement in another line of work and in a quieter place (in Cherbourg, on the Channel coast). He follows the orders of two more experienced policemen, who are native of the Montfermeil area, Chris, the chief, and Gwada. The long turn into the city the trio makes quickly shows that Stéphane is ill at ease with the manners, methods and maneuvers of his new colleagues. Things get out of control when they must look for a lion cub stolen from a Gypsy-run circus. They eventually nab the culprit, a very young teenager the film has already introduced, Issa, an amazingly foolish boy, but Issa’s friends start rioting; Gwada wields too quickly a Flash-Ball gun; Issa is badly injured. The cops then realize a drone is shooting the scene; its owner, Buzz, another kid of the place the film has tracked in his awkward relationships with his father and girls, right away understands he is making an explosive video.

The incident deepens the chasm between Stéphane and his colleagues, not just because he is shocked by their behaviors and twisted sense of priorities – protecting their positions getting far more important than looking after the kid, even if it means working with a shady nightclub owner. He decidedly takes initiatives that help the kid, including threatening the circus director as the fellow humiliate Issa, and smooth the things over, in particular striking a deal with Salah. Two competing visions of the role and ethics of the police are clashing – yet the reality is not clear-cut, as Chris and Gwada have demonstrated they can deliver results and get some respect while Stéphane seems to be remarkably naive in his approach to Montfermeil.

The last part of the film, after the pause and after sun rises up again, slowly descends into hellish territory. Kids of the neighborhood where most of the plot has taken place rally behind Issa and chase down the streets and a building the three cops. This is a punitive action and a merciless revenge the cops cannot handle on their own. The film ends with a tense series of shots and reverse shots between Issa, wielding a petrol bomb, and Stéphane, wielding his gun. There is a degree of irony here: over their first talk, the police station chief urged Stéphane to be responsible and to have the team spirit, because if you are not part of the team, you end up alone in the midst of danger.

Now he is really alone, even as his partners are next to him, but as powerless as he is. His experience has sorely tested the limits of the esprit de corps so cherished by the French police, and other institutions, from education to municipality which, by the way, are failing to make a real difference in people’s lives. He has found out that the dangerous world out there is full of complexities and compromises, more or less good, and often less so than more. Issa, for his part, like others, just know the violence inflicted by the law and order but also the by crime – it is truly admirable that this kids’ revolt is also targeting Le Maire and the thugs of the neighborhood, as if they were keen on punishing a whole set of individuals and connections, not just a trigger-happy cop. Can a dialogue begin between them despite their differences and because of what the elder has done to help the junior?

“Les misérables” refuses to tell. Even God may not know all the human nature’s complicated ways, after all. And preaching a message has never been in the cards here. The point is to paint the many dimensions that stand in the background of this distressing crisis; the film shows what life is in this underbelly of the French nation and who are those damned souls who must live and work there, the new miserable people succeeding those depicted by Victor Hugo in his huge novel whose title is readily borrowed by Ladj Ly and his team. The young director puts on an impressive performance for a debut feature, telling a multifaceted narrative with an empathetic sense of the detail, a humanist take on characters usually reduced to stereotypes defined by various, and conflicting, discourses, from the mass media pandering to the middle classes to the activists keen on discrediting institutions. The ultimate tragedy is that even a comprehensive view and knowledge cannot allow us to hope that the final conflagration can be avoided.

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