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Thread: LES MISÉRABLES (Ladj Ly 2019)

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    LES MISÉRABLES (Ladj Ly 2019)



    A lion cub, a drone, and a revolt

    This celebrated new French film (Jury Prize at Cannes, finalist for the international film Oscar) the feature debut of the Mali-born, Parisian banlieue-raised documentary filmmaker Ladj Ly should stir you up, if you have feelings to be stirred. It seethes with anger, even hatred, the haine signaled in Mathieu Kassovitz's precursor film of 25 years ago, its sources perennial inequality and injustice. It hints at the contrasts in France - above all in the country's glittering showcase, Paris. It dramatically shows how police brutality feeds hostility in the impoverished and downtrodden suburbs of French cities known as "Les Cités" or "La banlieue" which exploded most notably in 2005 revolts. It's more a workmanlike film than a great one and hasn't a great deal of flair. But it does do a good job of dramatizing civilian anger at police brutality. Ly has been compared to the young Spike Lee (who coincidentally got a reboot to his career in 2018 by winning the Cannes Grand Prix and now being named this year's President of the Jury). Time will tell if Ly has what Lee's got. I'm not betting on it quite yet. But Les Misérables is a powerful little movie, with passion behind it, whatever its shortcomings.

    Les Misérables' opening scene is the only one that takes place in the Paris tourists know. It's in the center, around the Arc de Triomphe. A sea of young people, glowing with pride in being French, wave or wear tricolor flags and sing the violence-tinged French anthem "La Marseillaise." The lines we hear are: Marchons, marchons!/Qu'un sang impur/Abreuve nos sillons!, "March, march,/that an impure blood/may water our trenches!" The camera sweeps over the field of folk. All are young. None of them are white. They are there to celebrate France’s 2018 World Cup victory. In this spirit of hope, and the song's hint of violence, are signals of what's to come.

    The story focuses on a three-man anti-street crime police unit that patrols Les Bosquets, the crime- and violence-ridden banlieue housing estate in Montfermeil northeast of Paris, where, over the course of a couple of days, the action takes place. Surprising since it's not at all sympathetic to them, action is mostly shot from the cops' point of view, and revolves around them, unlike that of some French banlieue movies that have given the underdogs more starring roles. Nonetheless, the anger and injustice we feel are of the ghetto kids. The cops are the racist white leader Chris (Alexis Manenti); his partner the handsome, African-born Gwada (Djibril Zonga); and a rookie newcomer from the provinces, Brigadier Stéphane Ruiz (Damien Bonnard), going through a hellish debut à la Training Day. He is our emotional inside man on the team, because he is an outsider.

    Right from the get-go at police headquarters we see a culture of abusiveness and disrespect on display. Chris, in particular, likes roughing people up, like the group of girls waiting for a bus stop. He sniffs one's fingers and says they smell of shit (pot, pronounced "sheet"). A smaller girl films him with her phone, and he smashes it, and they walk off, having accomplished nothing but pointlessly ruining the girls' day. Ruiz is already horrified. But he's out of his element, unaware of any of the names and places and rules.

    Later, we meet some rough local leaders. The big burly mayor (Steve Tientcheu), whose football jersey has "Le Maire" printed on the back, keeps order in a big street market. Salah (Almamy Kanouté), equally tall and strapping (they could have been better differentiated), is a sort of maudit Islamic guru and adviser of dubious origin but much presence who the teenagers come to. Another leader is Zorro (Raymond Lopez), a squat gypsy (they're all big and squat) who has a circus lion act. Up on the roof is a bespectacled, tech-friendly boy known as Buzz (Al-Hassan Ly), who has a drone he's been using to spy on girls. Now he gets to shoot a crime scene with it, and since the footage will become a hot item, he takes on a pivotal role.

    The first fracas involves Zorro and the gypsies' squabble with the Mayor, which the cop team arrives to tame down, with limited success. Zorro 's lion cub, which he raised himself, has been stolen and he wants it back.

    The local community's key figure, though, is another boy, Issa (Issa Perica), who has cornrows and a handsome, expressive face. He's both provocateur and provoked, a mischievous thief who's just been caught stealing a bag of live chickens. He's the one who's gotten hold of "Johnny," the lion cub. Chris, to tease Ruiz, sends him into Salah's cafe asking for information about the stolen cub, and Salah improvises a good put-down about how a lion should not be in a circus, and is a noble creature celebrated in Islam.

    In chasing Issa, who escapes from their clutches helped by a gang of other boys, Gwada shoots off a fire ball that hits the boy in the face. At first it seems he may be dead. Chris's focus is not on getting Issa to a hospital but self interest. He leaves Issa in their car and runs to track down Buzz's drone footage. Ruiz seeks to intervene, and is so disenchanted it's even a little surprising he's back with Chris and Gwada on patrol the next day. By that time, Issa has revived, though that expressive face is damaged, frozen now into a look of permanent rage and sadness. He is very angry, and collective revenge ensues.

    With its title from Victor Hugo, whose eponymous novel's Thénardiers' inn is also set in Montfermeil, Ladj Ly lays claim to centrality in French culture, with a new, non-white, underclass proletariat to populate its action. Ly stands apart from filmmakers like Jean-François Richet, of Ma 6-T va craquer and District B13, who have used banlieue crime and violence as raw material for action entertainment rather than social protest, which it becomes here, despite the open-ended violent finale.

    The tense final scene, with its trapped feeling, is set in one of the many jumbled, chaotic stairways of the crowded "Cité." This is deeply appropriate. The other, silent, main character in this film's action is the buildings of Les Bosquets themselves, with their grim passageways jammed with rubbish and covered in graffiti that tell nothing and tell all about this miserable life, or the occasional warmth and creativity within.

    The screenplay was co-written by Ly with Giordano Gederlini and Alexis Manenti. Editor Flora Volpelière and Ly get the action off to a slow start, which helps establish the situation even though the Les Bosquets residents aren't developed in much specific detail. D.p. Julien Poupard does great work. Ly is one to watch, and this is a movie to see.

    Les Misérables, 104 mins., debuted in competition at Cannes May 2019, winning the Jury Prize; shown in over two dozen other festivals. Opening 20 Nov. 2019 in France it received rave reviews (AlloCiné press rating 4.3, i.e. 86%). Us release 10 Jan. 2020, wider, 24 Jan. Metascore 79%.



    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 01-25-2020 at 10:45 AM.


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