Tuesday, September 08, 2020

Les Misérables – incendiary policing stirs up fire in the modern hearth of Victor Hugo’s novel (QFT until 17 September)

The morning after French victory in the 2018 World Cup and newly transferred to the station, Stéphane Ruiz (Damien Bonnard) spends his first day in the back of the patrol car being shown the sights Montfermeil (the location of Thénardiers' inn from Victor Hugo’s eponymous novel) by ‘Pink Pig’ Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Gwada (Djebril Zonga) from the Street Crimes Unit.

Les Misérables depicts a style of policing where searches are arbitrary, and the legal basis somewhat spurious. Leaders in the local community are played off each other. This is policing without accountability and without any respect for the citizens supposedly being protected.

It’s a male tale. In one of just a few brief scenes in which women speak, it is established that Chris’ unorthodox methods are tolerated by his senior colleagues due to his legacy of getting results.

A missing circus animal sends the squad on a search for a young boy (Issa Perica) and the subsequent arrest goes ‘sour’. But when Chris realises that their ‘situation’ has been filmed from above, he goes into overdrive to cover their tracks. Along the lines of Spiral, but even more cowboy and out of control.

The early scenes gently and expertly introduce the modus operandi of the large cast of characters, each baring their imperfections like the proud scars of war. The sound of the estate provides the rich soundtrack.

The storytelling comes with a sense of intimacy. Les Misérables is personal. Director Ladj Ly grew up in Les Bosquets and documented police action and was a strong voice during the 2005 riots during where he witnessed an act of police brutality. So it’s no accident that his son, Al-Hassan Ly, appears as Buzz, the youngster who owns the drone that captures the fictional event at the film’s point of no return.

The final scene returns to the same streets and witnesses the violent consequences for all those who were complicit in the previous day’s actions and coverup. Rather than seeing the elimination of all that was bad, it demonstrates how a new generation can simply perpetuate the same behaviours of their elders.

Having stepped into the squad car along with Stéphane and seen the wrongdoing with our eyes, audiences are implicitly asked what it will take for the rules of the game to change and not just the players. The closing shot pauses to wonder if Issa has witnessed anything worthy of trust in the behaviour of Stéphane. It’s a harsh lesson from Ly that rings as true in Northern Ireland as the eastern suburbs of Paris.

Les Misérables is being screened in Queen’s Film Theatre until 17 September. If you enjoyed this review, why not buy me a tea ...

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