Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
Nominated for Best International Feature at the 92nd Academy Awards, this film was the official submission from France. The fact that it’s the official submission from France is the result of it winning Best Film at the César Awards. It also won the Jury Prize at the 72nd Cannes Film Festival where it premiered. The ending of it reminded me of another, French film that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, but at the 68th Cannes Film Festival. The ending reminded me of the Palme d’Or winner, Dheepan (2016).
Both films involve a person of color in France in an impoverished neighborhood, which ultimately erupts in violence. When it came to French films that could have been the official submission to the Academy Awards, a lot of prognosticators wanted Portrait of a Lady on Fire to be the nominee and not this one. Having now seen both, I think the French submitted the correct film. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is excellent on a technical and on a craft level, but it doesn’t pack the emotional punch of this film. Portrait of a Lady on Fire felt like a film I’d seen before and a thousand times. This film feels totally fresh, not that I couldn’t find comparisons to make, but writer-director Ladj Ly makes it feel unique, authentic and completely his own thing.
This film is actually an adaptation of a short film that Ladj Ly did called The Pitiful (2017). “The Pitiful” is also the English translation of “Les misérables.” His 15-minute short was based on a real-life incident that happened to Ladj Ly. Broadly, one could say that Ly’s film was about Black Lives Matter or BLM. Black Lives Matter is a movement against police violence or systemic racism from government authorities toward black people. The movement is fueled by videos recorded by people in the community as bystanders or witnesses of police violence against black people. Those videos are recorded on smart phones or in ways that make them easily shared on social media. In the United States, BLM began officially in 2013, but Ladj Ly was recording videos of police violence before then. He specifically caught an incident in 2011, which was the inspiration for this film. It’s not autobiographical. His real-life was simply a jumping off point.
Damien Bonnard (Staying Vertical and Dunkirk) stars as Corporal Ruiz, a former first responder from the French countryside who has taken a job with the police force near Paris. The reason he’s taken this job is so that he can be closer to his son who lives with his mother somewhere in the city. Ruiz has been assigned to a special crime unit that focuses on a specific area just outside of Paris, in a neighborhood called Montfermeil. The neighborhood is notable for two things. One is that its the setting of the famous, French novel by Victor Hugo. Hugo’s novel has the same title as this film, but the second thing is that Montfermeil is also the home of a social estate called les Bosquets, which is French for “the groves.”
Les Bosquets isn’t a place where you’ll find a lot of trees or greenery as one would associate with a grove. It’s just a collection of rundown buildings. Most of them are apartment buildings for public housing, accommodations for impoverished people who can’t afford to live anywhere else on their own. Most of the people there are black people or Muslim people, as well as other ethnic minorities. It’s essentially a ghetto.
Alexis Manenti co-stars as Chris, the police sergeant who is in charge of the special unit overseeing Les Bosquets. Unlike Ruiz, Chris isn’t new to the scene. He’s been working the streets of les Bosquets for years, if not a decade. He’s very familiar with the area and the people in it, but he has no respect for them. From his comments, as he sits in the police car, driving around the neighborhood, it’s clear that he’s racist. He’s not just making racist and misogynist comments or jokes with racial currents. As a white guy, he believes he’s better than the black and brown people he’s supposed to protect and serve. It wouldn’t be so bad, if he weren’t so aggressive.
For Chris though, it might just be a power trip thing. Yet, he perhaps believes that he needs to be this way in order to survive. Given the case that he takes on Ruiz’s first day on the job, which is to find a missing lion cub from a traveling circus act, it’s not surprising that he thinks the people of les Bosquets are nothing more than wild animals too.
Djebril Zonga also co-stars as Gwada, the right-hand man to Chris. He’s been working on the same streets for the same amount of time, ten years, and he’s developed a worldview that’s similar to Chris. The difference is that Gwada isn’t white. He’s black. Unlike Chris who doesn’t live in the same neighborhood that he patrols, Gwada does live in the neighborhood. There are residents who are immigrants or of African descent who don’t speak French. Chris can’t talk to them, so he looks down on them, but not Gwada. He can talk to them. He understands them and doesn’t look down as Chris does.
The film all takes place within the span of one 24-hour period. In that space of time, and through the perspectives of these three men, we get how the relationship between the police and black people works. As a black filmmaker, one might assume that Ly has made an anti-police film, but he anchors the film in the point-of-view of these police officers. He doesn’t paint them all as bad guys or draws distinct lines that a film like Black and Blue (2019) did. There is a plot line here that’s similar to that 2019 film, but this film explores the cops and the people in the neighborhood in a way better and more nuanced way.
The supporting cast, meaning the actors who play the people in les Bosquets, is all incredible. We meet them only briefly and don’t spend that much time with them, but they come across as such, fully formed and fleshed-out characters that we feel for them more than we might have felt for the characters in The Irishman (2019) and those characters get way longer screen-time. Special acknowledgment has to go to Issa Perica who plays Issa, a young man filled with such joy at the beginning as he celebrates France’s win of the FIFA World Cup in 2018 and how the events of Ruiz’s first day on the job irrevocably change him, leading both Issa and Ruiz to a point that is one of the most powerful points and endings I’ve seen in cinema in a while.
Rated R for language, some disturbing/violent content, and sexual references.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 44 mins.
Available on Amazon Prime.