Les Misérables

What better way to celebrate the return to the cinema after lockdown than going to see a truly mesmerising film. Armed with a gin and tonic and suitably distanced, wearing facemasks when not drinking, we settled in for a white-knuckle ride for a day in the life of a plainclothes anti-crime brigade in one of Paris’s poorest banlieue.

The opening scene shows France celebrating its World Cup win – the kids from the burbs all stream into the city centre, congregating round the Eiffel Tower, and join the mobs sing La Marsellaise. It seems like a country united in victory and a world away from the tenement blocks where they live. 

Ruiz (Damien Bonnard) is a country cop who has moved to Paris to be near his estranged wife and son. His new team comprises team leader, Chris (Alexis Manenti) aka ‘pink pig’, and Gwada (Djebril Zonga), a corn-rowed French African, who is their driver and grew up in the district. We soon realise that Chris is a psychopath who has no respect for anyone and yet demands it ubiquitously. But as Ruiz points out, they do not respect him, they ‘fear’ him. They patrol the streets, swagger round the markets, bantering with traders and the corrupt African mayor, Chris bullying everyone including his own men.

Montfermeil is significant – it is where Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name, and later Hollywood fame, is set. Nothing much has changed except that Les Misérables are now African: this is now Muslim area, where you are as likely to hear Bambara as French, and where the women are either colourfully garbed in java print or black-clad in hijab. It is strewn with rubbish and the housing projects are dilapidated

The young tearaways do what most underprivileged children do – petty crime, aggravate their elders and hang out smoking and dealing weed. Chris further reveals his despicable character when he harasses a 15-year-old girl for fun, threatens to frisk her – an abomination to a Muslim female. When challenged by Ruiz he laughs it off.

To counter the disintegration of their society, there is a strong presence of the Muslim Brotherhood, led by former jihadi Salah (Almamy Kanouté), whose disciples try and instill values of decency into the kids by offering them food and drink as a trade-off for attending a meeting in the mosque. It’s good to see a much-belittled religious group offering a beacon of hope in a desperate situation.

On this very normal day our trio come across an ugly fracas between the mayor and the visiting gypsy circus over the theft of a lion cub. The situation is about to turn violent so the team agrees to find it. But this undertaking has terrible consequences as gung-ho Chris leads the chase for the perpetrator. Up on the roof-tops a lone geeky boy, Buzz (Al-Hassan Ly, son of the director), is playing with his drone and captures it all on film. 

This is a story about institutional racism, the clash of cultures, corruption, gangs, loyalty and inter-communal violence. Director Ladj Ly, Malian by birth, is obviously no stranger to this territory and the tensions between Muslim Brotherhood and irreligious criminal gangs, the mayor, the gypsies and, most of all, between the out-of-control kids and the police, is as gritty a portrayal of a society at war with itself as any. 

This is a visceral cinema experience. As well as the tension building to the inevitable denouement between police and community, there is an arresting  sound track, and some amazing cinematography, for instance a memorable shot of Issa (Issa Perica), the kid in the opening sequence, once joyous, now isolated in the playground; the handheld camera shots as the cop car patrols  the streets allows us to eyeball the kids from the same police perspective. It all contributes to the rising sense of menace.  There is one brief interlude, the calm before the storm if you like, when the three policemen return to their homes after their stressful day and we see them trying to fit – unsuccessfully – into their own version of normality.

In these troubled times, this film strikes a chord and has added relevance on global police brutality, something that is becoming increasingly common. No wonder it won the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2019 and was nominated for Best Foreign Film at the 2020 Oscars. Certainly worth a trip to the cinema to watch – or catch it on Curzon Home Cinema

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