Starring Damien Bonnard. In French, with English subtitles. Rated 14A
Victor Hugo would and would not recognize the Paris in this complex new movie named after his most famous book, now nominated for an Oscar. Lest anyone miss the reference, one of the three cops we follow through the tough suburb they patrol helpfully points out that Hugo started the novel there, 160 years ago.
This literary-minded gendarme is actually a brutish hothead called Chris, played by Alexis Manenti. Chris’s second-in-command is tall, handsome Gwada (Djebril Zonga), whose dreadlocks buy him some credit in the immigrant community—as well as unwanted attention from their female section chief (Jeanne Balibar). The moral centre of the story, as often happens, is the new guy, one Brigadier Ruiz (Damien Bonnard), facing his first day in the capital city.
Despite his impassive face, it’s clear that Ruiz is appalled by Chris’s bullying tactics, which eventually bring things to a boil on the hottest day of the summer. In the film’s remarkable opening sequence, deftly blending the actors with crowd scenes from the 2015 World Cup, Parisians of all stripes come together to celebrate a soccer victory. But that’s where the party ends.
The son of Malian immigrants and still resident in the Montfermeil projects where this largely transpires, first-time feature maker Ladj Ly also follows two local preteen boys: trouble-prone Issa (Issa Perica) and the more bookish Buzz (Al-Hassan Ly), so named because he owns a drone. The lad uses this to surreptitiously film local girls and, eventually, capture a scuffle that breaks out between angry children and our three policesketeers.
The writer-director, who has had his own scrapes with the law in the past, expanded this from a short using the same leads, and he has as much sympathetic grasp of the law-enforcement side as he does of the polyglot population. Ly leavens the grit with deft, dark humour, as when travelling Romany circus men nearly come to blows with African expats over the loss of a lion cub.
The search for same, initially seen as a joke, leads to a tense yet ultimately philosophical confrontation between Ruiz and a bearded community leader of immense dignity (cast standout Almamy Kanouté), who obliquely lays out some home truths about the ongoing blowback from colonialism, income inequality, racism, and the absurd war on drugs.
The quotidian fight for survival, and more, in this miserable pressure cooker is so interesting, in fact, that it feels like too much of a bad thing when the story arc yields to violent impulses that, ironically, make the movie less special. The filmmaker, in fact, swears he witnessed everything that happened here—just not all in a single day!