Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.
France, 2019. Srab Films, Rectangle Productions, Lyly Films, Canal+, Ciné+, Le Pacte, Wild Bunch, La Région Île-de-France, Cinéventure 4, Cinéfeel 4, Centre National du Cinema et de L’Image Animee, Cinémage 12 Développement, Cinéventure Développement 3, Arte-Cofinova 15. Screenplay by Ladj Ly, Giordano Gederlini, Alexis Manenti. Cinematography by Julien Poupard. Produced by Toufik Ayadi, Christophe Barral. Production Design by Karim Lagati. Costume Design by Marine Galliano. Film Editing by Flora Volpeliere. Academy Awards 2019. Cannes Film Festival 2019. European Film Awards 2019. Toronto International Film Festival 2019.
The harsh realities of Paris’s slumlike banlieu is the setting for this absorbing police drama that borrows the title of Victor Hugo’s most famous novel, asking us what is the value of a police force in a place where people feel that they are being set up to fail. Damien Bonnard joins a small unit of two other officers who spend their days patrolling rough neighbourhoods and keeping things from getting out of control; his two new colleagues include the “pink pig” (co-screenwriter Alexis Manenti), a hothead cowboy who thinks that he has to throw force down quickly or else risk being disrespected, and Gwada (Djebril Zonga), a son of African immigrants whose heritage acts as a kind of bridge when communications between the other cop and the mostly immigrant suspects goes awry. The theft of a lion cub from a circus by a local kid should be something easily resolved without much fury but, in searching for the stolen item and restoring it to its owner, tensions are heightened, emotions reach a high point quickly and a violent incident against the very young suspect puts these cops in professional danger when it turns out that their arrest was being filmed by a local kid’s camera drone. Now they have to try and keep their jobs while facing the ire of a neighbourhood that is jaded and frustrated with the perpetual daily routine of aggression they face from the people who call themselves their protectors, and thanks to the intelligence of Ladj Ly’s direction, what this takes us to is not an emotionally comforting ending but one that acknowledges the impossibility of squaring all the many factors involved. It doesn’t quite move at the pulse-pounding tempo of Maiwenn’s Polisse, nor is it as sympathetic as Houda Benyamina’s Divines, partly due to the fact that it has protagonists that one can easily take or leave: Manenti is obnoxious and is obviously being set up to get his comeuppance, while Bonnard and Zonga’s more nuanced views of the people on their beat is clearly being put across as impractical and not likely to lead to any substantial changes. The charisma of the kids, however, is electric, and a number of sequences are unforgettable, none of them more powerful than the iconic ending.