Tuesday, May 12, 2020

film review: Les Misérables

Directed by Ladj Ly

Written by Ladj Ly & Giordano Gederlini

ChinoKino score: A-

Review by Allan Tong

The great French novelist Victor Hugo set Les Misérables in the Parisian suburb of Montfermeil, where this drama occurs a century-and-a-half later. Both stories examine the downtrodden of France's capital, but today those poor are mostly angry black kids in hoodies with few prospects or male adult role models. Enter good cop Stéphane (Damien Bonnard seen in Dunkirk) who joins the Anti-Crime Brigade in Montfermeil. He learns the ropes of this rough area by riding with Chris (Alexis Manenti, center in picture above) and Gwada (Djibril Zonga, right in picture), two veteran, jaded and hardass cops.

Hardass, because Chris (a nasty white cop) and Gwada (black, who grew up in the 'hood) apply the toughlove approach to their policing, like harassing a cute teenage girl in front of her friends, or roughing up young men just to keep them in line. That's all in a day's work. Stéphane bristles at their approach, but the veterans believe you gotta be tough to survive in Montfermeil. After all, the police are tiptoeing in gang territory.

Things turn bad when a troublemaking kid, Issa, steals a baby lion from a gypsy circus. The gypsies accuse a local black gang of harbouring Issa (Issa Perica), so the pressure is on to locate the lion and protect the child from retribution. To keep this powder keg from exploding, the three cops get sucked into this search, but ultimately their efforts backfire. [To avoid spoilers, let's leave the synopsis at this.]

Director and co-writer Ladj Ly was inspired by his 2017 Cesar-nominated (the Gallic Oscars) short film of the same name. His feature has a realistic feel to it, because Ly hails from the rough Parisian suburbs and has shot documentaries about them, including one that put him in the middle of the 2005 Paris riots. That violence and anger runs through Les Misérables, but it falls short of being a self-righteous one which would have been predictable and insincere.

Instead, Ly presents characters who defy stereotype. Nasty white cop Chris appears to be a textbok racist, until you see he has a black wife and they're rising racially-mixed kids as old as the ones he hassles on the street. Gwada is close to his mother and is torn about policing kids who would have been him a generation ago. Stéphane walks an impossible line between remaining loyal to his partners and his conscience. The closest thing to an adult male community figure is a former convict who has become a devout Muslim. The kids who face the police aren't exactly boy scouts. Everybody carries baggage.

Ly effectively builds a thriller in a low-key documentary style that keeps the viewer enthralled and guessing. The only weakness is the very end, which felt like a cop-out instead of a haunting resolution. Others may disagree, but will be captivated by the ride.

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