A trio of cops tasked with keeping the peace in the Montfermeil section of Paris must prevent a violent gang encounter in Les Miserables, an explosive debut from director Ladj Ly that interrogates the root causes of violence. This must-see foreign-language gem opens Friday at the Cedar Lee.
Stephane Ruiz (Damien Bonnard) is the new guy on the beat when the film opens. Partners Gwada (Djebril Zonga) and Chris (Alexis Manenti), call him 'Greaser' because of his slicked-back hair, a diminutive that wears on him throughout the first of the film's two days. Gwada is from the neighborhood. Chris is an asshole on a power trip, the sort of cowboy cop who shoots first and asks questions later, who pushes people around to command what he calls "respect." In an early scene, he harasses three teenage girls at a bus stop for smoking weed. When one of them begins to film him on her phone, he slaps it away and says he can do whatever he wants.
Montfermeil is in the eastern suburbs of Paris, famously the location of Thenardiers' inn in Victor Hugo's Les Miserables. These days, it's dominated by huge high-rise public housing projects, called les Bosquets. They are largely home to poor immigrant families, the majority of whom are Muslim and hail from former French territories in Africa. The film masterfully depicts the interiors and exteriors of this world. When Gwaba searches an apartment, he comes upon women counting bills. It looks like a criminal operation, but it turns out they're just pooling their money so that individual women can make big purchases without paying interest. In other scenes, children play amid the concrete rubble: It looks more like a bombed-out Third-World county than Paris.
And yet, the film opens with an exuberant montage of many of these same young immigrants watching France win the 2018 World Cup downtown. The message is clear. These soccer-loving children are every bit as French as white Parisians.
The tension in Montfermeil escalates abruptly when muscly "gypsies" from a traveling circus seek vengeance for a lion cub that they say was stolen from them. They confront a man who runs the criminal underworld of les Bosquets, "The Mayor," and threaten that if the cub is not returned in 24 hours, they'll come back with guns blazing.
The cops, then, track the cub to a young boy on social media, and arrest him. But the young people are resentful of the police and resist. A violent encounter ends in tragedy and the cops face a new challenge: hunting a boy whose drone captured the encounter on video.
The film is a dramatic thriller that doesn't let up for the full one hour and 45 minutes of its run time. It concludes in the heat of another violent encounter, a terrifying ambush in the stairwells of les Bosquets, where rocks, shopping carts and construction detritus are the weapons of choice.
Police brutality and racism may seem peculiar to the United States. But Ladj Ly's provocative film demonstrates the way that reactionary governments worldwide have created hostile conditions for the global underclass. In a country with as rich a revolutionary tradition as France's, Les Miserables reminds viewers exactly what those hostile conditions lead to.