(director/writer: Ladj Ly; screenwriters: Giordano Gederlini, Alexis Manenti/based on the novel by Victor Hugo; cinematographer: Julien Poupard; editor: Flora Volpeliere; music: Pink Noise; cast: Damien Bonnard (Brigadier Stéphane Ruiz), Alexis Manenti (Chris), Djebril Zonga (Gwada), Issa Perica (Issa), Al-Hassan Ly (Buzz), Steve Tientcheu (The Mayor), Almamy Kanoute (Salah), Nizar Ben Fatma (La Pince), Raymond Lopez (Zorro), Jeanne Balibar (Precinct Captain); Runtime: 104; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Toufik Ayadi, Christophe Barral; Amazon Studios; 2019-France-in French & Bambara, with English subtitles)

“A questionable updated version on Victor Hugo’s celebrated 1862 novel.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

It’s a questionable updated version on Victor Hugo’s celebrated 1862 novel “The Miserables,” one that has a much different Paris population than Hugo’s. The Mali-born but Paris based director and writer Ladj Ly, in his first feature, called by some the French Spike Lee, is a former actor and director of the Cesar-nominated short Speak Up, who made the film because he was inspired to respond to the 2005 Paris riots. It’s co-written by Ly, Giordano Gederlini and Alexis Manenti, and plays out as an uninvolving and heavy-handed urban cop procedural that touches base with France’s current racial and crime problems that in its conclusion reaches the boiling point. It’s set in a poor Parisian suburb, with a large African population, the tough Montfermeil district in the east of Paris. The area Hugo used for his book that is now known for its violent banlieue Les Bosquets and also as the site of the Thenardiers’ inn used by the author.

The divorced veteran white police officer Stéphane (Damien Bonnard), from whose POV the story is told, has a young son living in Paris with mom, which is the reason he leaves the provinces to work in the troubled impoverished suburb of Montfermeil and has joined the street day patrol anti-crime squad to partner with the laconic African Gwada (Djibril Zonga) and be under the de-facto command of the white street-smart but unscrupulous reactionary Chris (Alexis Manenti). Their politically safe flirty precinct captain (Jeanne Balibar) sends mixed messages to her charges, telling Stéphane that she tolerates no “inappropriate behavior” but looks the other way at Chris’s indiscretions.

The crime fighting trio cruise around the community, showing them there’s a police presence if needed. The officers make friendly contacts and recruit informers and citizens they can rely on for getting intel on the community. Many police officers also get payoffs from local businesses and show antagonism to the community. While on patrol, Stéphane immediately discovers Chris is a bad cop who abuses those in the housing projects, sexually harasses a fifteen-year-old girl at a bus stop during an unnecessary body search and smashes the cell phone of her friend who’s recording his inappropriate behavior. Chris has the nickname of Pento, a hair cream brand he uses for his greasy hair. When Pento falsely accuses a devout Muslim of being a terrorist, this is too much for Stéphane, who urges Pento to quit acting like that. Pento in reply says by acting tough the community respects the police. But the reality is the community only fear and hate the police, and see them as their oppressors and consider themselves living in an oppressive regime.

When a lion cub is stolen from a travelling circus run by Gypsies, they suspect a local boy from a street gang named Issa (Issa Perica). The cop trio nab the kid, but his gang throw rocks at the cops and help him get away. A race riot is averted at the last minute when the cops realize they are being filmed by a drone owned by one of the gang members (Al-Hassan Ly) and they flee the scene not wanting the media to find out about this, but still must search for the film recording.

The three policemen deal daily with a varied group of criminal characters in the community who unofficially run things. There’s the town’s self-appointed black mayor (Steve Tientcheu), an apolitical but power-hungry crook into all kinds of illegal businesses. There’s also the threatening members of the Muslim Brotherhood who play a role as mentors to the young men vigilantes and keep the racial tension high in the neighborhood. Their leader is Salah (Almamy Kanouté), a now devout Muslim ex-convict, who owns a kebab restaurant, which is recognized by the community as the unofficial place where disputes are settled. Another power-broker is the big-time drug dealer (Nizar Ben Fatma), who wants order maintained only because it keeps the police away from his thriving illegal business.

It shows a complex power structure to deal with, in an area of extreme poverty, violence and gang activity, where even something slight can escalate and turn violent. The cops feel macho by busting balls in their street patrols. While in the same streets the racial tension always seems to be present. 

This is not an easy film to approach with feelings about it one way or another. It offers no subtlety for dealing with its cops vs. the citizens confrontations. Its characters are mostly undeveloped and cardboard figures. Furthermore, it only references Victor Hugo’s epic tale of revolutionary times without signing onto it as a way to make a better world, as there’s no belief anyone in the community can bring about positive changes. Its most powerful statement might be a quote from Hugo: “Remember this, my friends, there are no such things as bad plants and bad men … there are only bad cultivators.” 

REVIEWED ON 2/12/2020  GRADE: B-