Written and directed by Ladj Ly, co-written by Giordano Gederlini and Alexis Manenti, a cop from the provinces moves to Paris to join the Anti-Crime Brigade of Montfermeil, discovering an underworld where the tensions between the different groups mark the rhythm. Starring: Damien Bonnard, Alexis Manenti, Djebril Zonga, Issa Perica, Al-Hassan Ly, Steve Tientcheu and Almamy Kanouté.
When Ly made this film, basing it around real-life riots that occurred in 2008, it’s unlikely he predicted just how relevant it would be in 2020 but the Black Lives Matter movement has made it even more poignant and lets its story cut straight to the heart of the subject. When it begins, it creates a very positive, youthful, community feel, a country coming together to celebrate national victory but that slowly dissolves as its path becomes clear. One of its biggest strengths is that, while it certainly is a crime-drama, the journey it takes feels very real and down to earth, it’s showing a darker side without stepping out of the realm of reality, which makes its impact all the more effective.
Ruiz (Bonnard) is a great character to introduce this story, he gives the audience an outsider’s perspective, someone who can bring the different worlds together and who you can sympathise with, as he questions the more brutal actions of his fellow officers. Bonnard gives an interesting performance, there’s not too much to know about his character’s past but he brings a certain naïve quality to him, he has a very simple personality, he’s amiable and reasonable. Zonga as Gwada gives a very layered performance, he lands somewhere in the middle between the reasonable Ruiz and vengeful Chris (Manenti), he tries to do his job the way it’s expected of him but clearly is conflicted about their choices. Manenti gives an almost disturbingly convincing portrayal of Chris, you can measure the success of his performance based on how much you will actively hate his character.
Understandably, you might expect this story of police brutality to walk quite a familiar path but the writing manages to make it feel fresh yet understated. It doesn’t attempt to overflow the story with emotion and thereby undermine it being firmly rooted in reality, it follows a solid pace throughout and gets you to invest in its characters and pays out handsomely in the end. It also nicely raises the question of whether enabling criminal or immoral behaviour is equal to committing it yourself, when Ruiz simply goes along with Chris’s instructions rather than objecting, allowing them to commit many acts of police brutality, how is he then any better than them? It creates an interesting conflict for the audience to follow his character and keep that sympathy but also find disappointment in his reticence to speak out.
The writing and direction both work together well to slowly build its tension to a breaking point, the actions themselves may not be subtle but the style that they use to explore them very much holds back to capture its everyday setting before letting loose in its finale. That style feels very confident and purposeful, it does justice to the importance of its story, even to the point that it’s hard to watch at times.
Les Misérables is an impactful and poignant exploration of police brutality that remains entirely relevant. Its style is down to earth and feels like an accurate portrayal, avoiding any need to delve into darkness, rather drawing it naturally from the subject. It’s a great ensemble of performances that push the tensions to an all time high before it breaks out into a high stakes, action-filled finale.