We’ll shake down Cosette.
How do toxic traits shared by plenty of police officers around the world (they exist regardless of whether they’re exceptions or the rule depending on your viewpoint) manifest? Is the attitude that your fraternity trumps abuse taught? Or is it learned? Because we want to believe that this brotherhood only goes so far as protecting a compatriot from the collective danger they face together every time they walk the streets. To continually watch it spill over into this prevalently unwritten code of protecting them from the ramifications of the danger they cause others, however, makes it difficult to provide any benefit of the doubt. So what should a cop do when he witnesses such injustice? Should he/she speak? Or join in? The answer is supposed to be easy.
Writer/director Ladj Ly and co-writer Alexis Manenti know it isn’t, though. They understand the pressure these cops face to live up to what’s expected of them since a failure to do so places their lives in as much danger of retribution as the unfortunate souls discriminated against on patrol. It’s all about trust and the complexities of that trust expanding as lines are drawn, allegiances set, and compromises made. So to name their short film Les misérables after the Victor Hugo novel written in the neighborhood of its setting isn’t to label those bearing the brunt of a trio of officers’ aggression. While they are pitiful in the sense of being deserving of our pity, the cops are pitiful in the sense of being unworthy of our respect.
And yet they do earn some of it. Chris (Manenti) doesn’t. He’s everything wrong with this subsection of law enforcement that believes violence is deterrence rather than a means to fan the flames hotter. Gwada (Djebril Zonga), however, does. He’s a voice of reason that definitely approaches the line, but is more willing to pull Chris back and diffuse a situation than dive head-first beside him. Which of these personalities is stronger in the eyes of a rookie (Damien Bonnard‘s Laurent), though? Which will he gravitate towards when the latter only sometimes appears when the former goes too far? If Chris keeps needling him and needling him, eventually something will occur to make Laurent snap accordingly. You don’t want to be the innocent kid catching that rage.
This is some heavy stuff for Laurent to confront and the kids at risk of his growing wrath to endure. What should be a routine shake down (something he’s already accused Chris of going too far on previously) turns into a non-violent assault that implicitly (in his mind) provides permission to go farther than his conscience allows. Add a group of even younger kids fooling around with a drone to capture what happens and anger turns to desperation real quick. How the situation devolves and unfolds means the introduction of a lot of moving pieces and even more hastily glossed over conclusions leaving more questions than answers. While that should be okay in a sense, the rushed nature of a fifteen-minute runtime forces things to feel incomplete instead.
It’s therefore great to know that Ly has expanded upon his story to create a feature length version that’s earned immense critical acclaim this past year (it’s currently up for a Best International Film Oscar). I’m looking forward to seeing where he goes from this proof of concept because there is some real value in what he’s put onscreen as long as he can also get a message through that moves beyond mere futility. Because that’s all I felt here once agreeable compromises beget protested compromises and the rapid descent towards a moral point of no return arrives with a shoulder shrug. Perhaps that’s the point: the dynamic between oppressors and oppressed has reached a critical point of non-reversal. Without greater context, however, that message flirts with glorification.