In the midst of the furor surrounding Roman Polanski’s award as best director for J’Accuse at last week’s Césars (the French Oscars), Les Misérables, the movie that won for best film, has undeservedly gone under the radar.
Those hoping for another heartwarming musical version of Victor Hugo’s classic won’t find it here. Director Ladj Ly’s first feature film certainly derives direct inspiration from the 19th-century novel in its title, location (the Montfermeil district on the eastern edge of Paris, the setting of Hugo’s Thénardiers Inn), and occasional quotations and even situations, but the gritty story of three cops driving through a crime-ridden housing project called Les Bosquets is very much about current injustices in France.
Ly’s experience as a documentary filmmaker comes vividly to the fore with the breathtaking opening sequence of French soccer fans celebrating their country’s victory in the 2018 World Cup Final. The shots of surging multiracial crowds dancing together and singing “La Marseillaise” suggest a sense of togetherness and social cohesion that the rest of the film devastatingly shows to be a complete myth.
Ly uses the well-worn but effective trope of following a rookie cop (Stéphane, played by Damien Bonnard) on his first day at work, allowing viewers to learn about the rules of engagement at the same time as Stéphane. His two companions, Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Gwada (Djebril Didier Zonga), prove themselves in different ways to be thoroughly corrupted by the power they wield. Chris combines fiery charisma with menacing cynicism and overt racism, which seems to be accepted with equanimity by his black sidekick Gwada.
Stéphane, who has come to this new job from a less volatile area and who tries to play by the rules, rapidly discovers the extraordinary network of ties and alliances that bind cops and inhabitants in the estate, compromising them all. This is where the director is at his best, as it is clearly a world he knows well. A market stall-holder nicknamed “The Mayor” (Steve Tientcheu) is the local who is most closely in cahoots with Chris, acting as a bulwark or intermediary in the disputes that erupt regularly. One such situation is portrayed with bizarre brilliance when members of a Romani circus confront the black inhabitants about the disappearance of a lion cub that has been taken by one of the local kids.
As the three cops try to track down the culprit, Issa (Issa Perica) – who is easily identified because he has posted a photo of himself holding the cub online – they find themselves caught in the middle of a group of rioting teenagers, and Issa gets shot in the face by a police Flash-Ball wielded by Gwada. When it transpires that the event has been captured on film by a drone operated by another local kid, Chris embarks on a manic search to find the boy with the drone, seemingly impervious to the injured child who has been thrown into the police car and much more concerned with effacing all evidence of the cops’ wrongdoing.
The one man who is respected by the teenagers is Salah (Almamy Kouté), a former Jihadi who since being released from prison appears to be a source for good in the community, not unlike Hugo’s ex-convict protagonist Jean Valjean. The policemen need Salah’s influence to preserve the uneasy peace in this world of toxic masculinity: women and girls play little more than walk-on parts, and it is regrettable that we do not get to see more of the women’s inner and outer lives.
Possibly the most affecting part of the movie is when we see the three cops and some of the other protagonists at the end of this day from hell each returning to their homes – Chris to his wife and two daughters, Gwada to his mother’s apartment, the recently divorced Stéphane to an empty apartment. To my mind, it would have provided a much more eloquent conclusion to the film than that chosen by the director.
Instead, perhaps mindful of the part played by the uprising in the Hugo version, Ly opts for a final violent stand-off between the teenage inhabitants of the estate and the three cornered policemen. As viscerally exciting as the scene might be, this ending to a movie that is both brilliantly acted and filled with memorable visual images feels strangely unsatisfying.