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Les Misérables
★★★☆☆
First run Theater cinema

Ladj Ly’s feature debut is an intense, street-level police thriller set in the French district of Montfermeil, where Victor Hugo wrote the iconic novel whose title graces this movie. One of Paris’ poorest suburbs, Montfermeil is now home to mostly black and brown folks. The police are multicultural, but their Blue culture overrides whatever ethnic affiliations they may also have. Damien Bonnard (Dunkirk, The Trouble with You, The Wolf's Call) plays Stéphane Ruiz, a young, unassuming officer recently relocated to Paris from the provinces. Ly’s film follows him on his first day teamed up with two veteran officers who are from this hood. Alexis Manenti is a white officer named Chris, who is unconcerned with following the rule of law, and Djibril Zonga is a black officer named Gwada, invested in keeping the peace via instilling fear in the local population. Both men’s approach to their job is a shock to Ruiz. 

As this Les Misérables unfolds, Ruiz (and the audience) get a rapid-fire lesson in the specific tensions between all the various neighborhood groups. But the stakes of this “Training Day” soon escalate when one of the cops make a critical mistake during the course of an arrest. The picture shifts into high gear in its second act, where it becomes an edge of your seat thriller where you’re not really sure whom to root for. Ruiz seems like a good officer in over his head, but we don’t want to see brutal police go unpunished. Yet we don’t want to see the area erupt into the kind of violence that could get many innocent people killed, which seems a distinctly possible result of the events we see unfold.

The ethical conundrums and physical dangers mount at a dizzying pace, and the handheld camerawork becomes more and more visceral. Ly places us directly into the kind of chaotic situation police, protestors, criminals, and civilians often find themselves, and we are forced to confront what we might do were we any of these characters. The three lead actors are each terrific, as are the many supporting players and the young kids—non-actors all, I believe—who play vital roles. The movie’s beginning and end are not as powerful as its middle section, and the overall sensation we’re left with is one of despair. But this is a brutal and lasting study of a power struggle between those who have no power and those who wield too much.

Twitter Capsule:
Inspired by the civil unrest in Paris 2005, Ly’s gripping feature debut about a young police officer’s first day patrolling a poor French suburb is a harrowing study of the clash between those without power and those who wield too much.

Directed by Ladj Ly
Produced by Toufik Ayadi and Christophe Barral

Screenplay by Ladj Ly, Giordano Gederlini, and Alexis Manenti
Based on the short film by Ladj Ly

With: Damien Bonnard, Alexis Manenti, Djibril Zonga, Issa Perica, Al-Hassan, Steve Tientcheu, Almamy Kanoute, Jeanne Balibar, Raymond Lopez, Omar Soumare, Sana Joachaim, Lucas Omiri, and Nazar Ben Fatma

Cinematography: Julien Poupard
Editing: Flora Volpelière

Runtime: 104 min
Release Date: 20 November 2019
Aspect Ratio: 2.35 : 1
Color