The film that took the Jury Prize at last year’s Cannes shook French President Emmanuel Macron so strongly that he was moved to (ostensibly, at least) begin reforming France’s inner-city ghettos. Ladj Ly’s feature debut takes its inspiration from Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel, but this tale of urban deprivation and revolt is as contemporary as they come.
Cop Stéphane (Damien Bonnard) is on his first day as the newest member of three-man unit, led by Chris (Alexis Manenti) and second-in-command Gwada (Djebril Zonga) as they endure the daily grind of trying to keep the lid on the pressure cooker that is the east-Parisian urban ghetto, Montfermeil. A prologue setting jubilant footage of France’s World Cup victory against a tense, humming score amply visualises latent revolutionary potential – a reminder that order is often like so many dominoes ready to fall.
Ly himself grew up in Montfermeil – featured in Hugo’s novel as well as Ly’s Les Mis – while the events of the film are based on both the 2005 riots and an incident of police violence that Ly witnessed. It’s an interesting choice, then, that most of the film is told from the cops’ perspective, as occupying forces looking in.
After a set up establishing Chris’ indiscriminate method of street policing, and the unit’s somewhat cosy relationship with community leader / crime boss Le Maire (Steve Tientcheu), the plot kicks in proper with the carnivalesque theft of a baby lion from a travelling circus. The theft inflames tensions between the travelling showpeople and Montfermeil’s largely North-African population, but it’s not until Gwada blasts the juvenile lion thief, Issa (Issa Perica), with a flashball – a supposedly non-lethal riot weapon – that the powder keg really threatens to explode. Neighbourhood kid Buzz – a clear parallel for Ly – films the incident on his drone, and so Chris and a complicit Gwada strong-arm Stéphane into detaining a badly-injured Issa while they hunt for Buzz and the video that could ignite a city-wide revolt.
Much of the film is shot in twitchy, handheld close-quarters that capture Stéphane’s unease and the permanent sense that something really nasty is about to kick off. The typically realist style is disrupted by drone shots at key points in the film, depicting the suburb in uncommon cartographic beauty while drawing attention to surveillance normalised by its ubiquity. But in the hands of Buzz the drone kid, Les Misérables hints at the ways that the tools of the state can be turned against it: the panopticon turned in on itself.
Gwada is by some distance the most interesting of the three cops. He is the only black officer of the three of them and in contrast to Stéphane’s clumsy shock at Chris’ borderline-fascistic policing, Gwada’s subtle glances to Stéphane and his rapport with Montfermeil’s residents speaks to a hard-won negotiation between doing what is right and self-preservation.
Narratively, Ly’s film has little in common with its literary source. Aside from a slightly on-the-nose reference while on Avenue Victor-Hugo, there is no obvious equivalent to Cosette or Fantine, no cops or cons comparable to Valjean and Javert in anything but the loosest terms. But as a study of injustice and systemic deprivation, and in its description of the conditions necessary for revolution, Ly’s film is in its very being a modern Les Misérables.
Christopher Machell | @MachellFilm