No peace for the wretched
Tensions boil over in Paris’ immigrant suburbs
This bristling new film by an emerging French filmmaker is not an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic novel Les Misérables, or even a remake of its various film versions. But, as the shared title is perhaps meant to suggest, it does take Hugo and his most celebrated novel as specific reference points, and while the action takes place in the 21st century, the film’s main setting is Montfermeil, France, the town in the outer suburbs of Paris in which Hugo wrote the original novel in the 19th century.
Writer-director Ladj Ly’s family immigrated from Mali, and he grew up in Monfermeil. His film echoes Hugo’s novel in its concerns with poverty, injustice and social prejudice, but it shapes itself primarily as a police story immersed in a flood of social, political, cultural, moral and legal conflicts. Since its story centers on three plainclothes cops navigating a district fraught with racial and ethnic strife, the film often seems somewhat like a police procedural with a wild streak of urban street life. It is that, but it’s really at its best when those cops and the diverse characters they encounter find themselves trapped in dilemmas for which there is no easy or fully satisfactory solution in sight.
The three cops are Chris (Alexis Manenti), Gwada (Djebril Zonga) and the newly arrived Stéphane Ruiz (Damien Bonnard). Chris, who is the group leader, comes on a little like a Gallic Dirty Harry, nasty-humored in T-shirt and crew cut. Stéphane may be the newbie but he’s no rookie, and his growing dismay over Chris’ “cowboy” methods soon establishes him as a conscience figure, for the audience if not for Chris himself. Gwada is black (the other two are white), and while he has to tread lightly around Chris, he picks his spots for decisive action in ways that suggest greater integrity than he’s usually able to show.
At first, tensions within the community are held in check, albeit just barely at times, as the three men move through encounters with the town’s imperious black “mayor” (Steve Tientcheu); Salah (Almamy Kanouté), an ex-convict businessman who dispenses justice from his kebab restaurant; a drug dealer (Nizar Ben Fatma); and some members of the Muslim Brotherhood who serve both as kindly mentors and fierce militants. Jeanne Balibar has an acerbic cameo as the precinct commissioner who oversees Chris and his crew.
Eventually, those tensions boil over. Somewhat ironically, two separate black youngsters wind up at the middle of it. Buzz (Al-Hassan Ly, the director’s son) is a loner who flies his drone around the neighborhood illicitly photographing young women and, as it happens, police misconduct involving Issa (Issa Perica), a very active street kid who gets caught with a stolen lion cub belonging to a gypsy circus, sparking the various conflicts at play.