Although borrowing its title from Victor Hugo’s novel, this is a contemporary film, set in Montfermeil suburb north of Paris, where Hugo wrote and set part of his story and where many members of France’s socially deprived black and Muslim immigrant communities now live. As one character in the film remarks when the link with Hugo is mentioned: “Hasn’t changed much then, has it?”
The story centres round three cops working in the area. Newcomer Stephane (Damien Bonnard), who has moved from the country to be near his estranged wife and child, has just joined long standing partners Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Gwada (Djebril Zonga). The newcomer is somewhat shocked by the tough and in some cases racist attitude his new colleagues demonstrate, with an element of bad cop – Chris – and good cop – the gentler Gwada. It is though a tough district to police, where the almost feral teenagers are running out of control and the trio need the co-operation of the Mayor (Steve Tientcheu), leader of the black community and Salah (Almamy Kanoute), whose kebab restaurant is the centre for the local Muslims.
After a series of minor incidents, the cops’ serious problems kick off with a threatened war between the Romanies in the circus and the Mayor’s community, when black teenager Issa (Issa Perica) steals a lion cub. With the help of social media it doesn’t take the cops long to find the boy and cub, but in the course of his arrest Gwada’s fireball gun injures the boy, adding fuel to the fury of the teenagers who witness the event. Another problem is the incident has been filmed by another boy Buzz (Al-Hassan Ly), and if the cops don’t get hold of the memory card with that video on it, they are going to be in big trouble.
The situation escalates into a tense and action packed conflict between the cops and the teenagers, resulting in a chilling finale.
Director Ladj Ly, born in Mali but raised in Montfermeil, has been shooting documentary footage of the area since he was a teenager, including recording the 2005 riots in the area, which inspired this film and which at the time he released on the internet. This is his first feature film and in cinematic terms it’s a cracker. You could transport the story and characters to Los Angeles or Chicago with some star names in it and it would probably be a big action movie hit.
This antidote to other, more romantic films about Paris is though somewhat more than a fast moving action movie. With everything, including the lion cub incident, being based on things that actually happened, Ly assures us, the story is even handed about the socially deprived lives of the community, including the cops themselves, whose lives aren’t that much better. What strikes you from Ly’s direction and Julien Poupard’s cinematography, is not only the limitations of their lives, lived with little money or prospects, but also the spiritual desolation of the area – a concrete wasteland of cramped flats in crumbling high rise buildings. Not a green shoot in site.
So what we have here is a fast moving action thriller which happens to be in French and which also has something significant to say. As a quote from Hugo’s masterpiece reminds us at the end of the film: “Remember this, my friends: there are no such things as bad plants or bad men. There are only bad cultivators.”