If you looked at the poster for Ladj Ly’s French-language drama Les Misérables, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a documentary. That’s not an accident.
An unnervingly well-timed portrait of police brutality and youth revolt in a rough Paris suburb (or “banlieue”), Les Misérables serves as a kind of spiritual sequel to the 1995 classic La Haine. A similarly bleak tale of urban social conflict, La Haine forced the government to reflect on the country’s near-sacred assimilation model, which posed French society as an inclusive home for immigrants and ethnic minorities – on the condition they were willing to play the French way.
Most in France still believe in the old approach to newcomers, but Les Misérables offers a new spanner in the works in the form of a keener focus on the country’s racial tensions, which are less subconscious bias, and more of an all-encompassing cap on the life chances of millions. So, topical.
But what Les Misérables does differently to those that came before it, crucially, is tell an inside story of police dysfunction alongside that pragmatic approach to the banlieue. Posing as its main focus fresh face Brigadier Ruiz, (Damien Bonnard), a Nicholas Angel type whose by-the-book approach is challenged by the cavalier street crimes unit, Les Misérables targets figures of authority with even the noblest intentions. Tellingly, in the heat of the moment Ruiz confronts squad leader Chris (Alexis Manenti), “You don’t like me just because I don’t act like a cowboy…?” Chris snaps, “It’s not an act.”
Not that leadership on the estates is much better. Almamy Kanoute is probably the strongest performance as community organiser Salah, whose soft but flawed power over the banlieue carries as much thoughtfulness as mystique. Another is The Mayor (Steve Tientcheu), who wears a freshly printed France football shirt with his job title on the back, in case his corrupt dealings and shady entourage confuse anyone.
And, as in La Haine, the victims tend to be the young. Issa Perica wows as Issa, a juvenile delinquent making do in a wreckage. It’s his relationship with Ruiz which proves central to Les Misérables and its big ideas about the fogginess of a “cops and robbers” mentality. But when the cops are cowboys, it’s easy to get confused.