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Marina Antunes [Film Festival 10.09.19] France thriller drama

The central theme of Ladj Ly’s feature film debut Les Miserables is familiar not only in the context of the current political climate but also in broader terms of police films that use the concept of “us vs them” at the centre of the story.

Damien Bonnard stars as Stephane, a young cop who recently transferred from the countryside to the big city where he’s joined an Anti-Crime Squad team. Their job is to patrol the city’s culturally diverse neighbourhoods, making connections and developing relationships with local leaders in an effort to keep the peace. The Squad is led by Chris (Alexis Manenti, who also co-wrote the script), a cop who has been doing the job for so long, his sense of entitlement and self-importance has blinded him to the actual work, and rounded out by Gwada (Djibril Zonga), a local boy made good.

On Stephane’s first day on the job, the trio find themselves in the middle of a simple search for a boy but that search turns ugly when the cops are cornered by a gang of boys. A gun goes off, a kid gets injured, the entire ordeal is caught on camera and soon the cops are fighting time, calling in all the help they can to find the footage before it gets out to the press and causes even more damage.

Ly captures the streets of Paris’ Montfermeil neighbourhood (from which the movie’s title is taken) with a combination of awe and urgency of someone who is intimately familiar with it (or others like it). Julien Poupard’s cinematography is kinetic and captures the chase sequences well while also giving power to the quiet moments of introspection. The entire thing is brought together by excellent performances, especially Bonnard and Manenti who are constantly at odds; the energy between them is almost palpable through the screen.

In nearly every aspect, Les Miserables excels but the film doesn’t quite overcome the familiarity of the plot and in some ways, it feels like a rehash of already too familiar ideas: cops with god complexes, racial profiling, tensions between police and so-called “troubled” neighbourhoods. The major difference here is that these oft used tropes are transported from the US to France and seeing this type of injustice unfold elsewhere works to both depress one further while also somewhat reassuring us that we’re not all so different after all.

Les Miserables moves at a brisk pace culminating in an intense final act that rivals other urban thrillers (the two that immediately came to mind were Attack the Block and Attack on Precinct 13) but Ly brings his film back to reality with a brilliant final shot that makes the movie.

Les Miserables plays again at VIFF on October 10. For more details and ticket information visit the festival website.

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