Stéphane (Damien Bonnard) kicks off his first day as a member of a Parisian street crime unit with fellow officer Gwada (Djibril Zonga) and arrogant commanding officer Chris (Alexis Manenti). They are tasked with patrolling the community of the notorious Montfermeil district, famous as the setting for Victor Hugo’s famous novel Les Misérables and now populated by predominantly Muslim African community. After an animal is stolen from a travelling circus and a shocking moment of police brutality is captured by a drone, the three officers are caught in a race to contain their crimes before the district explodes in a violent riot.
Les Misérables is the debut feature of writer/director Ladj Ly, and uses Hugo’s famous novel as a springboard for a fast-paced and energetic contemporary police thriller. It situates itself deep in a Parisian suburb packed with racial and religious conflict, poverty, petty crime, and small government corruption. On the one hand it presents something overly familiar: the rookie cop’s first day on the beat, in which he is thrust into a complex political situation and butts heads with a corrupt commander. It plays out rather a lot like a French remake of Antoine Fuqua’s Training Day.
On the other hand there is a very specifically French lens being cast over the same general story. Les Misérables brings along an unexpectedly literary and thoughtful quality, tying to Hugo’s fiction in a more complex fashion that simply name-checking the book and showcasing a socio-political situation that affects the here-and-now of Parisian society. Stéphane enters a complicated political balance: he has joined a team with its own share of power on the streets, standing deliberately between a corrupt local mayor (Steve Tientcheu) who has carved out his own profit margins in governing, a local drug baron, and the Romani mob. Casting a particularly striking shadow over proceedings is Salah (Almamy Kanoute), a former jihadi turned peaceful agent provocateur who fosters better religious faith and behaviour from the suburb’s numerous children and teenagers. Ly does a deeply effective job in playing out a relatively large cast of characters in a manner that never gets over-complicated or confusing – this is despite the various competing agendas clashing throughout the film.
If there is a loser among the factional competition, it’s the children – and the film’s second half grows increasingly focused on the damage being caused to them. It is anchored by two outstanding juvenile performances. Issa (Issa Perica) is an energetic and charismatic young troublemaker whose petty crime renders him first homeless and then badly hurt as a result of police mischief. It is a deeply wounded and prideful performance from Perica that makes the character have such an impact. Al-Hassan Ly does a brilliantly withdrawn and panicky performance as Buzz, whose drone is the one that captures the assault on Issa and makes him a target for every group seeking to get an advantage over Chris and his police unit. This crisis builds wonderfully, and Ly contentiously refuses to tie it up for the audience by the end, and the surprisingly open climax leaves the audience with more questions than answers.
The adult cast are almost uniformly excellent. Particularly impressive are Damien Bonnard and Djibril Zonga, who get a nice level of complexity to their characters and who exploit those levels wonderfully. Also strong is Steve Tientcheu as the mayor, whose blunt and ill-tempered pragmatism contrasts nicely with Almany Kanoute’s haunted, regretful performance as Salah.
Technically the film is outstanding, using an arresting hand-held style to keep things frantic and uncertain. Montfermeil is captured with a huge amount of atmosphere, turning a densely packed suburb into a threatening maze of angry residents. The film comes packed with a strong sense of social justice. It arguably weakens as it goes, with the film’s overwhelming early scenes promising an intensity that the second half does not quite manage to deliver, but in the end this is a strong and powerful police drama with engaging performances and something of substance to tell its audience.