(Ladj Ly, France, 2019) 104 minutes


Director: Ladj Ly
Producers Toufik Ayadi, Christophe Barral
Screenplay: Ladj Ly, Alexis Manenti,
  Giordano Gederlini
Cinematography: Julien Poupard
Editor: Flora Volpelière
Music: Pink Noise
Damien Bonnard (Brigadier Stéphane Ruiz)
Alexis Manenti (Chris)
Djebril Zonga (Gwada)
Issa Perica (Issa)
Al-Hassan Ly (Buzz)
Steve Tientcheu (Le Maire)
Almamy Kanouté (Salah)

Reviews and notes

2019 Cannes, Sydney, Shanghai, Munich, Durban, Wellington, Jerusalem, Toronto, Helsinki, Athens, Zurich, Busan, Gent, Mumbai, Ljubljana, Singapore, Rio de Janeiro

It may have the same title as the oft-filmed Victor Hugo classic but be beware: this a slice of realist French cinema that bursts out with the same vigour, passion and realism as Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine which, in 1995, also took a look at the racial and cultural volatility in the multi-ethnic housing schemes on the outskirts of Paris. Director Ladj Ly, who has said he was inspired by Kassovitz’s groundbreaking debut as a director, sets the film in Montfermeil, where Hugo chose to situate Les Misérables 150 years ago. The springboard for the background was the riots that took place in 2005, although it could equally well be the France of President Macron and the gilets jaunes/yellow vests... Ly knows the working-class suburb intimately because he grew up there amid the misery and deprivation as well as overt police violence. His film started off as a César-winning short and has been extended to a narrative that proceeds at breakneck pace. There are several real-life moments, including the drone footage capturing an incident of police brutality - with a memory stick used as a bargaining chip. Ly wanted the people who have lived in these schemes to have the chance to tell their own stories, which gives Les Misérables an unerring sense of authenticity. It is directed with assurance and vitality marking him out as a significant new talent.
- Richard Mowe, Eye For Film, 15 May 2019.

A modern-day version of Victor Hugo’s Cosette would be working in the post office, reckon the three erudite anti-crime officers we follow across the estate where debut feature director Ladj Ly grew up – les Bosquets in Montfermeil, the still-notorious suburban commune east of Paris where Hugo drew inspiration for his seminal 19th-century novel Les Misérables. Based on Ly’s César-nominated 2017 short film – also of the same name – and partly inspired by the 2005 French riots, this Les Misérables draws parallels between Hugo’s text and modern life in the banlieue, exploring the social misery that follows an eruption of violence in the community.

Ly captures a united France taking to the streets to celebrate their victory in the World Cup. A group of young boys excitedly poke their head into a bar to watch the match and join their fellow countrymen in the revelry, before heading back home to get on with their lives. Nicknamed The Bugs by the police, the kids get in over their heads when their compatriot Issa accidentally sparks unrest by snatching a lion cub from a travelling circus. As the travellers aggressively confront the self-appointed mayor of the estate, the police strike a peaceful compromise and are given 24 hours to carry out an investigation.

And so begins a vibrantly tense tour around the neighbourhood, its characters and intersecting faiths and religions. New recruit Stephane (Damien Bonnard) tags along with seasoned anti-crime squad members Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Gwada (Djebril Zonga). The action escalates through fiercely energetic long-takes until the tension eventually reaches boiling point.

Ly, along with DP Julien Poupard, pokes his camera in all the right places, even hitching it to a drone operated by a character named Buzz, a young boy who pervs on the tough-talking high-school girls but also, by chance, records an act of police brutality. The drone finds grace as well as grimness, though, catching soaringly impressive aerial views of the tower blocks and basketball courts, the concrete slabs varnished with glistening sun.

Though there’s plenty of grit, Ly laces his film with humour and an infectious joy at the sight of kids playing in the streets, while also subverting pernicious stereotypes of minority communities. All serious business is pleasingly conducted in the local kebab shop, run by ex-thug-turned-local Muslim oracle Salah, who provides an oasis of support for the kids amid all the political turmoil.

Les Misérables aims for a balanced perspective when it comes to the police by shading in their backstories and daily routine, reminiscent of the even-handed stances of Maiwenn’s Polisse and especially Reinaldo Marcus Green’s recent Monsters and Men. As in the latter, women don’t get much of a look-in on the action: they get bullied by the police and play concerned mothers but otherwise get shunted to the side in favour of watching the men battle it out. Still, it’s an exciting debut, peppered with detail and told from an insightful vantage point that ignites a fiery discourse about citizens, the state and violence.
- Katherine McLaughlin, Sight and Sound, 23 May 2019.

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