Producers: Toufik Ayadi and Christophe Barral Director: Ladj Ly Screenplay: Ladj Ly, Giordano Gederlini and Alexis Manenti Cast: Damien Bonnard, Alexis Manenti, Djebril Zonga, Issa Perica, Al-Hassan Ly, Steve Tientcheu. Raymond Lopez, Jeanne Balibar and Almany Kanoute Distributor: Amazon Studios
There are echoes of the themes Victor Hugo explored in his 1862 novel in Ladj Ly’s “Les Misérables,” but anyone seeking a straightforward adaptation will have to look elsewhere. Ly’s film is instead a brutally violent portrait of the animosity between police and locals in the contemporary Parisian banlieue of Montfermeil (where the Thénardiers’ inn is located in Hugo).
The tale is told from the perspective of Stéphane Ruiz (Damien Bonnard), a by-the-book cop who’s just transferred to the capital from Normandy in order to be closer to his son. He’s assigned to Montfermeil, an impoverished commune dominated by the concrete high-rise called Les Bosquets, a largely lawless public-housing project with its own rules and self-appointed enforcers. He’s to serve under Chris (Alexis Manenti), a thuggish brute who declares that he is the law, and his acquiescent partner Gwada (Djebril Zonga).
Chris is blasé about harassing resident on a whim, but he and his comrades do have to respond to real emergencies, negotiating details with the commune’s crime lord mayor (Steve Tientcheu), who has his own gang of followers. The crisis this fateful day is set off when a lion cub is stolen from a Romany circus and its owner Zorro (Raymond Lopez) arrives to demand its return, threatening violence if it’s not retrieved.
The thief is a troublesome boy named Issa (Issa Perica) whose own father seems ready to eject him from their shabby apartment as being uncontrollable. The cops chase Issa down, but in the ensuing melee Gwada mistakenly fires off a flash-ball gun that severely insures the boy. The cops’ mission then becomes concealing the accident, a job made difficult by the fact that it was recorded on a drone camera by tech-savvy Buzz (Al-Hassan Ly), who now becomes their prey. The chase eventually involves Salah (Almamy Kanoute), the principled owner of a local diner who’s a leader in the Muslim Brotherhood and intervenes to restore the peace, though both Ruiz and Gwada are torn over how to handle their feelings of guilt.
Issa, on the other hand, is not mollified, especially since the cops allowed Zorro to humiliate him when returning the cub. With his friends in Les Bosquets, he arranges an uprising against both the police and the corrupt mayor. That confrontation erupts with terrifying force—a reflection of the 2005 riots that wracked the area.
Ly obviously intends the film to raise the same questions about law and justice that Hugo’s novel did, portraying how an implacable devotion to the former so often crushes adherence to the latter. In this case, the callous cruelty of so-called law-enforcement, and their inclination to protect themselves at all costs, become equally important elements. Ly’s treatment can hardly be described as subtle or nuanced, but it certainly carries a punch, and the cast infuse the action with almost unremitting intensity, Bonnard’s shocked bewilderment making Manenti’s manic bravado even more potent. Perica adds some shading to his character that makes him poignant as well as dangerous. On the technical side, Karim Lagati’s production design and Julien Poupard’s cinematography achieve a gritty authenticity, and Flora Volpeliere’s editing mirrors Ly’s propulsive pacing.
The result is a bracing modern gloss on the themes of Hugo’s oft-filmed classic.