Tag Archives: Damien Bonnard

The Dream I Dreamed

Les Miserables

by Hope Madden

“Remember this, my friends. There is no such thing as bad plants or bad men. There are only bad cultivators.”

Victor Hugo penned those words as he watched the suffering and oppression in the streets of Montfermeil.

Set in July 2018, when the World Cup victory made celebratory compatriots of everyone in France, at first blush, Ladj Ly’s film Les Miserables bears little resemblance to the saga of Jean Valjean and that tenacious Javert. But it doesn’t take long for the filmmaker to use the story of law enforcement and the population of modern day Montfermeil to show that little has changed since Hugo set quill to parchment 150 years ago.

Damien Bonnard (Staying Vertical) plays Stéphane. Ly taps Julien Poupard’s camera to follow Stephane on his first day in Paris as part of a three man unit tasked with keeping an eye on a mainly poor, primarily Muslim district.

Stéphane’s new partners, Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Gwada (Djibril Zonga), have been on the job long enough to have developed relationships and tensions in the neighborhood. Thanks to an almost absurd subplot involving a traveling circus—whose lion delivers an apt metaphor and a heartbreaking scene—Stephane’s first days on the force will be regrettable.

Ly was inspired to write the film by riots that broke out in his own apartment building and neighborhood in 2005. That authenticity lends the film both a visceral dread as well as a complicated compassion.

Like Hugo, Ly seems unwilling to abandon those in authority to the fate of villain any more than he’s willing to entirely forgive the actions of the oppressed. Rather, each side is implicated (one far more boldly than the other), but it’s the lack of tidy resolution that makes the fate of these characters compelling.

While every performance is impressive, young Issa Perica is the film’s beating heart, its undetermined destiny, and he’s more than up to the task. His lines are limited but his performance is heartbreaking, his character really the only one that matters.

A devastating social commentary masquerading quite convincingly as an intense cop drama, I’d say Les Miserables would do Hugo proud. The truth is, it would probably break his heart.

Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down

Staying Vertical

by Hope Madden

Alain Guiraudie’s meditation on manhood Staying Vertical hits upon similar themes as his 2013 murder mystery Stranger by the Lake. In other ways, one film is the other’s opposite.

Stranger by the Lake – a serial killer film set on the banks of a French lake used for gay cruising – examined its topic from the inside out. We were surrounded by the suspects, the victims and the scene of the crime. We knew what the leads knew when they knew it, so we participated in each curious choice.

And though Guiraudie once again considers sexuality – sexual expression, repression and identity – he keeps the audience at arm’s length from the exploration.

We wander the French countryside with Léo (Damien Bonnard). Our wide-eyed protagonist is a screenwriter in search of a story. He meanders from one situation to the next, his open curiosity his guide as well as his frequent undoing.

Staying Vertical’s story is as loose and open as Stranger’s was tightly wound. The film is borderline plot free. Leo hikes into the path of shepherd Marie (India Hair), plays with her kids, dodges looks from her father (Raphaël Thiéry – a find!), wanders away and, periodically, back.

His rambling leads him to town, where he tries to connect with a homeless man under a bridge. Then we’re on to a ramshackle house and into the lives of a young man and his ambiguously-defined father figure, into a bizarre plant therapy situation, back to Marie and out again.

Between the loose structure and Bonnard’s guileless performance, Guiraudie creates a fascinatingly male world of disconnection, longing and hope. Léo is – as are we, by extension – an interloper, regardless of his attempts to situate himself.

The filmmaker knows how to arrest your attention despite the meandering nature of the plot. The frank and often jarring sexual imagery (seriously, there’s a scene set to a Pink Floyd riff that will floor you) manages to question preconceived notions in truly fresh ways.

He also shoots scenes through with wry humor, and he captures landscapes (in look and sound) as few if any current filmmaker can.

Guiraudie’s metaphors are frequent and interesting, but never stronger than in the closing scene. Though the crossing storylines don’t always work, the characters that populate this harsh but lovely environment pique your interest as Léo’s journey captures your imagination.