Director: Ladj Ly
Starring: Damien Bonnard, Alexis Manenti, Djibril Zonga, Issa Perica, Al-Hassan Ly, Steve Tientcheu
Paris is indeed burning in this post-modern take of Victor Hugo’s classic novel based in 19th century France. If you’re expecting to see a musical film with Jean Valjean and a stolen loaf of bread, you’re in for a much more gloomy reality check. However, there are stark similarities, such as the commune of Montfermeil and the central themes of poverty and revolt.
The movie begins on a patriotic and united front with the streets of Paris filled to the brim with people cheering and waving flags following the national football team’s victory at the 2018 World Cup. But, as time goes on, this utopia’s perfection reveals its faultlines.
We are then taken on a journey from the gaze of a three-man crime prevention unit navigating the perilous projects of Montfermeil, marred by poverty and crime.
The tension is thick between the several groups fighting for territory in this concrete jungle, namely: the gypsies led by Zorro (Raymond Lopez); a community of locals led by the mayor (Steve Tientcheu), who is just as familiar with the wheelers and dealers; and a Muslim brotherhood led by ex-con Salah (Almamy Kanouté).
To add to this tangy brew of group dynamics are children who are left to their own devices.
The crime prevention unit is not the beaming hero we hope it is. Instead, we have Chris (Alexis Manenti), the crooked trash-talking manifestation of toxic masculinity whose acquaintance we make when he is harassing young teenage girls for his own amusement. Gwada (Djibril Zonga) is a complacent local turned cop who goes with Chris’ flow and obeys diligently. And then there is Stéphane, played by Damien Bonnard, a newcomer who clashes with crooked Chris.
The characters are portrayed with texture and nuance, making this feature film an excellent debut by Ladj Ly.
For instance, crooked Chris brings more lawlessness than order but returns to his family and is a gentle father figure adored by his daughters.
Gwada falls into a tear-filled abyss on his mother’s shoulder, showing some vulnerability and remorse for his actions.
The film exposes false utopias that could easily fall apart at the seams. It also reflects what we experience in South Africa: a rainbow nation that is, ironically, one of the most violent and unequal societies.