Don’t expect to see Anne Hathaway sobbing or Russell Crowe attempting to sing in Les Misérables, a French film in competition at the Cannes Film Festival. Although it is set in the Paris suburb of Montfermeil, where Victor Hugo wrote his classic novel, Ladj Ly’s debut feature is a racially charged urban drama about the hostility between police and civilians – and between civilians and civilians – on a rubbish-strewn high-rise estate. It’s almost an update of Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine or Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, and while it won’t have the seismic impact of either of those masterpieces, a heart-stopping final sequence has more impact than most films have in their entirety.
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Another point of comparison is Antoine Fuqua’s Training Day, in which Ethan Hawke’s naive LAPD officer learns some hard lessons from Denzel Washington’s rogue detective. In Les Misérables, the new kid on the block is Stéphane (Damien Bonnard), a mild-mannered single dad who has just transferred to Paris’s macho anti-crime squad. His first day on the job consists of sitting in the back of a Peugeot, being driven around Montfermeil by the aggressive and possibly psychotic Chris (Alexis Manenti) and his quiet partner Gwada (Djebril Zonga). Chris gets his kicks by harassing teenage girls, but he knows how to keep the peace in this deprived multi-cultural neighbourhood, a process which involves negotiating with schoolchildren, the Muslim Brotherhood and a gangster-turned-self-appointed ‘Mayor’ (Steve Tienthcheu).
There is an explosion of savage action that is so shocking, exciting and politically fascinating that it blasts the film into a different level
The tension never slackens. After Jeanne Balibar’s cameo as a wry police chief in the opening scenes, women are almost entirely absent from the scenario, so it’s left to the men to do lots of testosterone-fuelled shouting and posturing as the temperature hits the mid-30s. But the real trouble starts when the tattooed crew of a travelling circus roll up to the Mayor’s front door and accuse one of the kids in his care of stealing ‘Little Johnny’, an abductee who is, it turns out, a baby lion. Stéphane and his colleagues soon track down the cub-napper, because, of course, which 21st-Century youth could resist putting a photo of their pet lion on social media? But when they arrest him, they severely injure a boy, and the incident is filmed by a drone that happens to be buzzing past. Now Stéphane has to locate both a lion and a drone, wondering all the while whether he should be protecting his new team-mates or handcuffing them.
Ly is a skilled tour guide to Montfermeil, showing us the overcrowded flats and the sprawling street markets, the concrete waste grounds that the youngsters use as football pitches, and the kebab shops that the adults use as conference rooms. The relationship between the three policeman is deftly drawn, too. Chris may be a nasty piece of work, but he stays just on the right side of police brutality, so Stéphane and the viewer are willing to stay there with him. On the other hand, most of Les Misérables is neither thrilling nor revelatory enough to raise it above countless other gritty dramas with similarly impoverished settings. As various tricky situations are resolved all too easily, it looks as if the narrative is going to finish with an anti-climactic shrug.
Don’t be fooled. Just when you think that the story is drifting towards an obvious ending, there is an explosion of savage action which, although highly implausible, is so shocking, exciting and politically fascinating that it blasts the film into a different level. It also connects this Les Misérables to Hugo’s Les Misérables in a way that makes sense of the shared title. Ly’s debut is certainly impressive. But if those last few adrenalised minutes had been the centrepiece of the plot, rather than its coda, who knows how great it might have been?
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