The ghosts of the oppressed rebels of Victor Hugo in the 19th century haunt the contemporary urban drama of Ladj Ly, winner of a Caesar, a street story about the dispossessed masses of France, once again on the verge of rebellion. Nominated for Best International Feature at the 92nd Academy Awards (he lost to Parasite), it presents a powdery portrait of the tensions of the toasting, recalling both the pressure cooker structure of Spike Lee Do the right thing and the balanced grain of truth from David Simon’s monumental television series Thread. Careful never to paint his complex figures with simple black-and-white strokes, this one slips stealthily from shrewd observation to urgent action, reminding us of Hugo’s maxim that “there is no bad plants or bad men. There are only bad cultivators.
We open in a moment of ironic harmony, as tricolor-clad revelers celebrate France’s 2018 World Cup victory, with the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe glittering in the background. But this harmony soon dissipates when our young anti-heroes return to Montfermeil, the Parisian district immortalized in Hugo’s 1862 novel. “It hasn’t changed much,” notes Stéphane Ruiz (Damien Bonnard), a newly transferred street policeman from Cherbourg. His colleagues, nicknamed “the two biggest clowns” by the night patrol, are Gwada (Djebril Zonga) and Chris (Alexis Manenti, the co-writer of the film), who describes himself as “100% pig” and who “in sometimes abuse ”. in the police of “the brutality of the world”.
While on patrol, Stéphane learns of the existence of the belligerent factions who are fighting for control of these streets; from “the mayor” (“our own Obama”) to the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood (“a thug who grew a beard”), all equally vilified by Chris who behaves like a bad tin lieutenant, harassing teenage girls and bullying young boys. The arrival of a traveling circus (“Gypsies, never a good sign”) and the flight of a lion cub bring an air of carnival chaos, with little Issa (the remarkable Issa Perica) thrown into the lion’s den – literally. Meanwhile, a drone camera piloted by a young voyeur (played by the son of director Al-Hassan Ly) offers a divine view of the unfolding of events, capturing a shocking act of violence that threatens the precarious stability of the neighborhood. As Salah (Almamy Kanouté) ominously warns: “You will not avoid their rage.
Based on her 2017 César nominated short, Ly’s first feature film (which follows several acclaimed web documentaries) paints a beautifully pristine portrayal of suburban life, as vibrant and diverse as that of Céline Sciamma. Youth. In stark contrast to the monochrome tones of Mathieu Kassovitz’s still influential masterpiece in 1995 Hate, Wretched is shot in vivid color by cinematographer Julien Poupard, whose cameras meander in and out of the action, with long takes (elegantly edited by Flora Volpelière) plunging us into this tangibly real world.
There is little sense of artifice, as young stars like Issa Perica lend a startling veracity to scenes that might have seemed contrived or overworked. I find it hard to remember a more striking image than that of Issa, bruised and bloodied, bursting into tears in the midst of a heartbreaking ordeal, only to rise up like a silent specter in the third act, who plays like a reverse social-realistic revisiting of Gareth Evans’ 2011 Indonesian action flick Lowering.
A thrilling electro score from French music project Pink Noise adds sparse but atmospheric accompaniment, with simple looping riffs creating tension in key scenes, while more elegiac cues underline the drama’s eerie, melancholy beauty. It’s that sense of beauty – of possibility of redemption – which prevents Wretched to be crushed by the grim weight of the world he portrays. It’s a world Ly grew up in, and her love for these neighborhoods, in all their hardscrabble glory, is tangible.