Les Misérables

MA15+

104 minutes

4 stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

In the summer of 2018, when France beat Croatia in the FIFA World Cup, the people of Paris went out on the streets, ecstatic with brotherly feeling. As throngs of fans crowded the Champs-Elysees, the Marseillaise erupted in a shared golden moment, but it was followed by serious rioting in the city.

This film is inspired by those events, a first fiction feature from documentary director Ladj Ly, who co-wrote the screenplay with Giordano Gederlini and Alexis Manenti, one of the lead actors.

the liberating possibilities of filmmaking for the socially marginalised

It is well made, compelling and, as it turns out this year, highly relevant. An invitation to outsiders to familiarise themselves with a district of extreme disadvantage, a city within a city with a rhythm and feel all its own.

The son of immigrants from Mali, Ly grew up in Montfermeil. After the Paris riots of 2005, he decided to turn the camera on his own neighbourhood, notably in the documentary 365 Days in Clichy-Montfermeil.

Not long ago, Montfermeil was a no-go zone, awash with drugs, and run by competing ethnic groups. A district home to immigrants of Sub-Saharan Africa and Maghrebi origin that have lived there since it was the location of Victor Hugo’s classic 19th century novel, Les Misérables. Other immigrant groups have made their way there since.

Ly has called his fiction feature Les Misérables in a deliberate nod to Victor Hugo. The director enjoys an advantage that the author didn’t have. The cinematography by Julien Poupard, the bird’s eye drone shots and travelling shots along the streets, makes a strong contribution to atmos of the Montfermeil location.

Ly knows the area intimately, with its eclectic mix of socio-economically disadvantaged, ethnically diverse people. And he clearly understands the liberating possibilities of filmmaking for the socially marginalised.

Ly’s Les Miserables foregrounds three policemen who work in the district’s anti-crime brigade.

Policeman Stephane Ruiz (Damien Bonnard) has just arrived. Experienced and credentialled, he had transferred there to be nearer to the young son who lives with his estranged wife.

It doesn’t take Ruiz long to size up the other two he has been assigned to work with. Unit leader, Chris (Manenti), is proud of his reputation ‘100% swine’, and Gwada (Djebril Zonga), much quieter, is a man of Muslim background.

They take Ruiz on a tour of the hood. There is a lot to absorb, along with an introduction to the team’s methods. Chris dubs him ‘Greaser’, a derogatory nickname that appears to be part of the deal.

Chris (Alexis Manenti), unit leader in the Anti-Crime Brigade. Courtesy UniFrance

Actor Manenti, in a challenging role, is particularly convincing, as are many of the ensemble of actors who portray the various community leaders. Ly has drawn excellent performances from the youngsters too.

On tour Chris and Gwada introduce Stephane to a man who behaves likes a long lost friend, although they helped put him in prison for four years. An encounter with a trio of teenage girls is more disturbing. Chris moves in on them threateningly but partner Ruiz manages to coax him away before things escalate further. It’s a genuinely chilling close call.

In recent times, the forces of law and order and the people of Montfermeil had reached an accommodation presided over by the so-called ‘mayor’ (Steve Tientcheu).

a minor theft drives the film to its tipping point

But when a juvenile of African descent, Issa (Issa Perica), widely known as a troublemaker, steals a lion cub from a gypsy circus troupe, the precarious peace in Montfermeil careens out of control.

The theft is a relatively minor incident that could be amusing, but it drives the film to its tipping point when the police tracking down the culprit make a serious tactical blunder. This is captured by a drone controlled by a local kid and he understands its serious potential.

All the complexity is masterfully handled by Ly, whose documentarian skills come into play as the various threads of the action are brought to a cliff-hanger conclusion.

Leaving the narrative ‘unfinished,’ can be a risky way to close a film, but it can work and certainly does here. It is the ‘how’ and ‘why’ that precipitate the events that are the point here.

As even-handedly as he can, Ladj Ly has skilfully shown in this important, award winning film, how community tensions can quickly escalate to a point of no return. How everyone makes a contribution, good and bad, to this outcome is rivetting.

First published in the Canberra Times on 30 August 2020

*Featured image: flics on the beat in Montfermeil, Gwada (Djebril Zonga), Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Stephane (Damien Bonnard). Courtesy UniFrance