May 16, 2019
By Sarah White and Johnny Cotton
CANNES, France (Reuters) – Filmmaker Ladj Ly urged French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday to watch his thriller about a chaotic police patrol, in the running for the top award at Cannes, as an insight into France’s “yellow vest” street protests.
Set in a Paris suburb, “Les Miserables” tells the story of three policemen who scramble to cover their tracks and keep the peace after their arrest of a local teen spirals out of control and is recorded by a passing drone.
Ly’s pulsating debut, selected for the main Palme D’Or competition, comes six months into a wave of sometimes violent French street demonstrations against high living costs and the perceived indifference of the ruling class.
The protests have drawn attention to police tactics including their use of flash-ball riot control guns.
“Today, with the ‘yellow vests’, you feel like people are just discovering all this police violence,” Ly told a news conference after the movie’s premiere on Wednesday.
“We’ve been ‘yellow vests’ for more than 20 years,” said the 37-year-old director, who grew up in one of Paris’s tough suburbs and based the film on a real arrest that he had once filmed. “We’ve been getting flash-balls in the face for over 20 years.”
“We would like Mr Macron to watch this film,” Ly added, saying little had changed for kids growing up in the “banlieues” since a wave of rioting in 2005.
Set among sprawling housing estates where teenagers, the Muslim Brotherhood and migrant families are all trying to carve out territory, the film is at times bitingly funny.
Its crude police trio take pot-shots at each other and come across eccentric delinquents; tense street scuffles suddenly become absurd misunderstandings.
But its taut pace also brings the promise of violence, and when a race to track down local troublemaker Issa gets out of hand, a more frantic struggle ensues.
Only early on in the film does the grand Champs-Elysees avenue, scene of many “yellow vest” protests, make a brief appearance, teeming with celebrating soccer fans — an exuberant opening that cuts abruptly to the next day’s reality.
Critics said the film’s concerns echoed well beyond France.
“It pits a nervous, trigger-happy police force against an aggravated urban underclass in a battle of wills and weaponry that is all too universally recognizable,” wrote Variety critic Guy Lodge.
Ly’s choice of title makes clear that the theme is by no means a new one, either, and many of the scenes are shot in the Montfermeil neighborhood that inspired the atmosphere of brewing revolution in Victor Hugo’s epic novel of the 1830s.
(Reporting by Sarah White and Johnny Cotton; Editing by Kevin Liffey)