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  Miserables, Les Wild In The City
Year: 2019
Director: Ladj Ly
Stars: Damien Bonnard, Alexis Manenti, Djebril Zonga, Issa Perica, Al-Hassan Ly, Steve Tientcheu, Almamy Kanoute, Nizar Ben Fatma, Raymond Lopez, Luciano Lopez, Jaihson Lopez, Jeanne Balibar, Sana Joachaim, Lucas Omiri, Rocco Lopez, Diego Lopez
Genre: Drama, ThrillerBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: It is the first day of Ruiz (Damien Bonnard) at the SCU, a highly trained police unit operating in the estates of Paris where some of the most crime-riddled and poorest citizens live. Montfermeil is his new beat, and he is to accompany a couple of old hands, Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Gwada (Djebril Zonga), who have been patrolling there for around ten years each. They subject him to some banter to see what he's like, but he doesn't take the bait, being a watchful sort who prefers to think before he acts, so when they take him on his first drive he stays back, observing rather than acting. However, someone else is observing this district, a young boy with his own drone which will become all the more significant as the day winds on...

Director Ladj Ly had his brush with the law himself in his earlier years, which might have led you to expect his feature debut (after a short film on the same subject) to be an angry retort to the Paris police he had grown up with in the same place he set this movie. Yet taking his cue from the Ruiz character, he rejected that despite the action-packed finale he worked out, and took the opportunity for the trio of cops' patrol to allow the audience to see its way around the district as well, learning its local colour as well as what kind of personalities you would routinely meet there. They were mostly non-white, often Islamic, sometimes criminal would-be masterminds, but in the main, if they did break the law it would be for petty offences, not major ones.

We are to understand this day will not be a normal one, otherwise why would Ly have brought it to our attention, but for the opening half hour, maybe more, he served up a ramble around the streets - and sometimes above the streets - that filled us in on his background. Although there were gangs, nobody here was depicted as an outright villain as we could perceive everyone had their reasons for what they did, and poverty was a big part of their choices, along with a pride that they clung onto for dear life since they could give themselves respect nobody in the wider society was interested in applying to them. This even related to the kids, who switch from the kind of calm observation Ruiz has to turning downright feral should they feel as if they have been disrespected or threatened, again this desire to be admired or feared over being accepted their motivation for getting through their time on Earth.

Therefore when the three cops cross them, they start to fight back, and the film asks us whether they were justified in standing up for themselves or whether they were merely thugs straining at the leash for a fight. Naturally, Ly found the conclusions far more complex than either/or, and while the climax was something akin to one of those eighties action flicks where the residents of a tower block can't take it anymore and battle against their aggressors with whatever they had to hand, the politics of that behaviour was a lot less clear cut. Some would have made up their mind before they even watched Les Miserables, assuming they did at all, and while two of the cops are debatably making a perilous situation worse, the third, Ruiz, speaks with a moral voice of reason that you feel will be lost in kneejerk responses all about. Ly left his message to Les Mis author Victor Hugo (this was not a musical) just before the closing credits in a quote from the novel, suggesting a toxic environment will only do harm, maybe that was obvious, but it acknowledged if it managed to improve, the products would improve as well. You would be well aware this was the voice of experience talking to you, and also that not everyone would listen. Music by Pink Noise.

[On DVD and digital 30th November 2020.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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