Director Ladj Ly
LES MISÉRABLES B+
France (103 mi) 2019 ‘Scope d: Ladj Ly
There are no such things as bad plants or bad men. There are only bad cultivators.
―Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, 1862
While the film is not a retelling of the Victor Hugo classic, it is set in the eastern Parisian working-class suburb of Montfermeil where Ly was born and grew up, which is also a key setting in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, yet the impoverished district today is pretty much exactly as it was more than 100 years ago, where misery still prevails in the area, comprised of multi-cultural housing projects where three in five children live below the poverty line, a region filled with civil unrest, economically bleak with few available options, where police violence remains a factor. The prevailing sentiment from the Hugo novel that continues to the present is that there is simply no hope for the future. Loosely based on the 2005 riots that started in the French suburbs of Clichy-sous-Bois following the deaths of two teenagers who were electrocuted attempting to escape the police, a state of emergency was declared, with nearly 3000 arrests and significant material damage to neighborhood infrastructure, from buildings to local businesses, much of it from the burning of more than 9000 cars. According to the director, nothing has changed since then, supported by an accompanying article from The Guardian ('Nothing's changed': 10 years after French riots, banlieues ...), suggesting other filmmakers will be making similar films just like this in another twenty years. There is already a cinematic trail, originating with the Mathieu Kassovitz film LA HAINE (1995), Jean-François Richet’s MA 6-T VA CRACK-ER (1997) and more recently Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan (2015), all films shot in the projects, or suburban banlieue regions, where people are routinely stigmatized as criminals, with racial tensions between residents and police continually on high alert, using raw language, quick edits, and an ultra-realistic cinéma vérité shooting style to convey the immediacy of each moment, as these are tinderboxes of violence continually on the verge of erupting into a firestorm of violence. Winner of the Jury Prize (3rd place) at Cannes, tied with another film, while technical awards were handed out to Flora Volpelière for editing and Julien Poupard for the cinematography, which is on full display in the impressive opening sequence, a massive celebration of national unity along the Champs-Élysées in Paris under the Arc de Triomphe, with young kids in particular of Arab and African descent streaming out of the projects draped in the blue-white-red flags of Les Bleus after France won the soccer World Cup in the summer of 2018, all in agreement over the superlative skills of young French striker Kylian Mbappé, of Algerian and Camerooonian descent. The entire nation was enthusiastically euphoric, beautifully captured by these documentary style images, but by the film’s end, in stark contrast, these same kids, harassed and unwelcome at home, are leading a violent insurrection in Montfermeil against the police and other authoritative powers within their neighborhood, an explosive revolt that captures the French revolutionary spirit of the Hugo novel.
Set over the course of two days, Stéphane, Damien Bonnard from Alain Guiraudie’s Staying Vertical (Rester vertical) (2016), has recently joined the Anti-Crime Squad in Montfermeil that already includes the more easy going Gwada (Djebril Zonga), who grew up in these suburbs, and hyper-aggressive Chris (Alexis Manenti, co-writer of the film), both experienced members of the team, with Chris the hot-headed de facto leader of the squad, though his unconventional tactics seem to fly in the face of reason, responding spontaneously, using his instincts in deciding what to do, basically making up the rules as he goes along, which doesn’t exactly endear him to the young populace that he’s hired to serve and protect, as they’ve grown used to his harassment techniques. Nonetheless they must act as a unit if they expect to be effective, where their primary mission is to deter criminal activity, as they are the eyes and ears of the police department. In this massive housing project, kids are policed by the local Muslim Brotherhood who attempt to change behavior by instilling Islamic values, like staying clean, being smart, and respecting one’s elders, where the leader is a reformed convict named Salah (Almamy Kanouté), mild-mannered yet serious to the core, while the secular kids are run by the Mayor (Steve Tientcheu), a kind of mob boss that rules the old-fashioned way, guns, weapons, and brute power. The police are kind of the odd men out, as they don’t live in the projects and they’re not viewed as trustworthy, and though they can act friendly or at least sympathetic at times, checking up on the kids at soccer games or asking about their families, they’re not anybody’s friend, as they also rule by intimidation. Kids routinely get arrested for petty crimes from time to time, so they have run-ins with these cops, but don’t want to get criminal records, as that affects their future. But very few of these kids ever thinks about the future, as they’re too busy dealing with the day-to-day, which is hard enough, as everyone seems to be conspiring against them, where no one’s really interested in anything they have to say, believing they’re too young. The film almost exclusively features young elementary school kids, as anyone high school age or older is mysteriously missing, likely already in adult trouble, while the youth of today have yet to enter the world of felonies and serious criminal behavior. As a result, there’s a definite LORD OF THE FLIES (1963) element to this story, a hierarchy within the ranks of the kids, where from the opening the central focus is upon Issa (Issa Perica), a leader of the pack seen earlier celebrating Les Bleus, also picked up for petty offenses, where he’s starting to establish a reputation among his friends as a reliable leader, creating a huge fuss when a steals a lion cub from the circus run by Gypsies, who don’t take too kindly to the offense, initiating an all-out race war against the blacks, where all the parties convene in a mad rage of accusations and racial insults, with the Anti-Crime Squad caught in the middle hoping to contain the rage, promising a return of the baby lion.
What’s immediately clear is the extent to which Chris routinely crosses the line, where harassment is his specialty, the life blood of his police work, which doesn’t sit well with newcomer Stéphane, finding it difficult to work with a guy who basically ignores every rule in the book, creating friction wherever he goes, taking his dangerous high-wire act into the neighborhoods on his rounds, creating resentment and open defiance. Whenever his authority gets questioned, or trouble lurks, Chris only amps up the challenging and confrontational tone, becoming a voice of belligerence, sending fear into the hearts of the kids, but they’ve grown tired of it. As kids are questioned about the missing animal, they rally in defense, supporting their friend and ally, throwing bottles and rocks at the cops, screaming at the top of their lungs, threatening to retaliate. The intensity level is off the charts when panic sets in, with Gwada inadvertently firing his precautionary weapon, a stun gun that hits Issa, bloodying his face while knocking him unconscious. Clearly the police screwed up, but making matters worse, it was all captured by a hovering drone that makes a hasty retreat. Chris’s inclination is to find that drone at all costs, as their lives and careers will depend upon it, where the health of the kid becomes secondary, refusing to take him to a hospital, instead sending an all-out search for the owner of the drone. This sets the wheels in motion for an extremely well-choreographed manhunt sequence, with different factions having their own motives and intentions, each racing against time, all tracking the same device, where the poor kid that recorded the whole thing knows they’ll all be coming for him. It’s a thrilling footrace through the inner passageways of the projects, each trying to outrun the others, all culminating in another stand-off between the various parties, with the cops, the Mayor, and Salah now shielding the kid, requiring intense negotiations, with huge repercussions, depending on the outcome. This high-voltage, visceral footage is extremely impressive, especially in a first-time feature, drawing plenty of accolades, creating a thrilling and highly entertaining film. And just when the cops think they may be off the hook, where there’s a calm after the storm, another storm hits, this time out of nowhere, where there’s no way it could have been anticipated, as the kids in the projects literally explode into the faces of the police squad, penning them down in the stairways of the projects, their own turf, their own battlegrounds, reaching incendiary levels of kinetic intensity that will surprise even the most experienced movie-watchers, becoming an insurrection of epic proportions, with the kids providing the revolutionary sentiment, storming the barracks in the hallways of their own homes, fighting tooth and nail in life or death matters that may haunt them for the rest of their lives, but it is clearly a turning point, a reckoning, a warning sign of what’s to come, where it’s a rush of unleashed virulence and hostility all headed in your direction. Clearly an incendiary and testosterone-driven film where women get shortchanged, as they barely grace the screen, but the powerful message at the heart of the film could just as easily have come from The Fire Next Time, a book of essays written by James Baldwin in 1963 that presaged the race riots that inflamed Watts, Newark, Detroit, Chicago and other cities throughout the rest of the 60’s, where he writes, among other things, that “The most dangerous creation of any society is the man who has nothing to lose.”