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Storyline (warning: spoilers)
Mali-born director Ladj Ly’s decision to borrow the title of Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel for his sweaty feature debut might seem odd, but there are indeed connections between that apparently archaic text and this scarily contemporary saga. Partially set in the Montfermeil district where Hugo set the book, this also features similar themes of vengeance and the persecution of the poor, and it concludes with a Hugo quote that could have been penned yesterday.
Drawn from Ly’s 2017 short film and a factual case from 2008 (which he witnessed and filmed), we open in 2018 after the French team won the FIFA World Cup, a moment of national solidarity, and then follow events shortly afterwards that demonstrate the exact opposite.
A new police officer, Stéphane Ruiz (Damien Bonnard), joins squad leader Chris (Alexis Manenti) and brigadier Gwada (Djebril Zonga) in Montfermeil, and is cruelly nicknamed ‘Greaser’. Chris plays power games with local teens, and while Gwada disapproves, he does nothing, although Stéphane grows increasingly uncomfortable. Elaborate circumstances then have a local kid, Issa (Issa Perica), commit a theft, which leads to aggressive circus owner Zorro(Raymond Lopez) threatening to attack an apartment block guarded by ‘The Mayor’ (Steve Tientcheu) in a sequence that’s stressful to watch with all of its improvised yelling.
When a small riot breaks out between the kids and the cops, someone naturally gets hurt, and this is filmed by young Buzz (Al-Hassan Ly), who previously just wanted to peep at girls, but suddenly finds himself targeted as we reach a series of dangerous flashpoints. And yes, it’s hard not to think that this plot thread seems to prophesise the murder of George Floyd in the US, and the resultant near burning-down of the country. A wild, unruly and disturbing experience, cast mostly with untested unknowns, this is nevertheless an important film, and surely Victor Hugo would have greatly approved. And don’t worry: no one sings.