Les misérables (2019)

Les misérables
Director: Ladj Ly
Writer: Ladj Ly, Giordano Gederlini, Alexis Manenti
Cast: Damien Bonnard, Alexis Manenti, Djebril Zonga, Issa Perica, Al-Hassan Ly, Steve Tientcheu, Almamy Kanouté, Nizar Ben Fatma, Raymond Lopez, Luciano Lopez, Jaihson Lopez
Seen on: 20.2.2020

Content Note: police violence

Stéphane (Damien Bonnard) is new at the police station in Montfermeil, one of Paris’ more troublesome neighborhoods. Stéphane is full of good intentions, so seeing how his colleagues Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Gwada (Djebril Zonga) interact with the people around them shocks him. As he tries to get his bearings and figure out the power distribution in the neighborhood, their first case together already starts spiraling out of control.

Les misérables is a tough film in the best way. It takes a very critical look at the pretty much desperate situation in the poorest parts of Paris, but it does leave some air to breathe at the end. Maybe.

The film poster showing a group of men staring at the camera.

It’s probably not a coincidence that this film is called Les misérables (the German title for the film kind of ruins this parallel by calling the film “Die Wütenden” – The Furious – though I do like the title), given that it’s set in the same part of Paris and ends with a revolution. And Ly quotes Hugo: “Remember this, my friends: there are no such things as bad plants or bad men. There are only bad cultivators.” Even if the rest of the plot has nothing to do with the other Les misérables, what becomes painfully obvious with that title is how little things have changed.

But to start with, the movie goes into how strained the relationship between the people of the quarter and the police is. Seasoned police men Chris and Gwada go in basically with their weapons drawn and ready to kick and punch anybody. Stéphane seems to think that a different way of police work is not only possible, but is actually necessary – and there are moments when he is very right. But in the end, it’s too little too late.

A group of kids, among them Issa (Issa Perica) sitting on the sidewalk.

But the problem here is not just the police. It’s also the men who run the quarter behind the scenes. They have their turf wars and their own ways of claiming power. It’s the boys who are caught in the middle and slowly get ground down (I have to say boys, because girls are pretty much completely absent from the film and women don’t fare much better, but there are hints here, too, that they are part of the ground down parts). That they will not put up with this situation forever, becomes only logical.

Ly has a way to capture all the different shades of violence that govern the life of kids or rather everyone in the quarter. That he is a first time director is simply astonishing. I guess he made up for his lack of film-making experience by his wealth of experience with the subject matter – he grew up in that quarter himself. It’s a depressing situation – but at least there is a revolution in the end. Something has got to give – and while the revolution is brutal, it’s also freeing.

Stéphane (Damien Bonnard), Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Gwada (Djebril Zonga) leaving a house.

Summarizing: Really strong.

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