Les Misérables is a powerful and confronting realist work depicting a contemporary French migrant suburb on the edge of anarchy. A brilliant powder-keg of a cop thriller, all the more remarkable for being writer/director Ladj Ly’s feature debut.
The 2020 Lotterywest Perth Film Festival is shaping as one of the best in recent memory. And coming up next, French writer/director Ladj Ly’s stunning debut feature Les Misérables, commencing at Somerville on 27 January, is right up with previously screened program standouts Pain and Glory and The Lighthouse.
The title of the film has been cheekily lifted from Victor Hugo’s famous novel, as well as its setting of Montfermeil – also the Parisian suburb where Ly grew up. As depicted here, contemporary Montfermeil is more miserable than ever, an impoverished, rough-as-guts, mostly black migrant ghetto teetering on the edge of anarchy.
Ironic, then, that the film opens with a scene of joyous community unity as an exhilarated multiracial crowd, including whooping young residents of Montfermeil, spill out of a football stadium on to the streets raucously celebrating a national soccer triumph.
This is but a moment of escapism for the marginalised; there is no unity in Montfermeil, which is being torn apart by warring factions, including the Muslim Brotherhood, criminal gangs, and a group of white toughs who run a local circus. Then there are the teens (referred to as ‘bugs’ by their elders), who rampage through the streets, bored and looking for action.
One of the highlights of the film is a confrontation between the circus crew and one of the black crime groups. The three-man cop team assigned the unenviable task of keeping a lid on the powderkeg that is Montfermeil have to pull out all stops to keep the two groups from all-out combat. The adversaries loom big and mean, enraged and pumping with testosterone as they chest up to each other. The situation is so dangerous and frightening, you hope the cops prevail. When was the last time you felt like that in a film?
The cop trio are a familiar mix of characters. Stéphane (Damien Bonnard) is a newcomer. He’s tough but straight and decent, and rails against the “unorthodox” policing of his partners, the thuggish and volatile Chris (Alexis Manenti), who is both loathed and respected by the local crims and power-players, and Gwada (Djebril Zonga), brought up in the hood. While Gwada is hard-bitten and has no issue with Chris’s aggro authoritarianism, he is not as brutal and overbearing in his modus operandi.
However, it is Gwada who sparks a life-endangering crisis when he panics in an inflammatory confrontation with local teenagers and inflicts a potentially lethal injury on one of the ringleaders, Issa (Issa Perica, the standout in a uniformly excellent cast). Worse, the incident is captured on video by a drone belonging to one of the kids.
The mission of the cops to save their arses by tracking down and confiscating the drone leads to a heart-stopping belter of a climax culminating in a powerful final image that works superbly both dramatically and figuratively. Perfect endings are rare – this was one. Indeed, the parting image, which speaks to both present and future, continues to revisit me, weeks later.
There’s a great dynamism to Les Misérables, partly achieved through skilled camerawork, including a lot of hand-held shots. Early on, the jerky filming is unsettling, albeit appropriate. Haters of hand-held filming need not despair. It’s not used constantly, and besides, the viewing experience is so absorbing, the unfolding drama so gripping and tense, that you stop noticing the technical aspects. This might be Ly’s debut feature, but he knows exactly what he’s doing. The sense of authenticity he brings to the film, no doubt drawing on real-life experiences and his intimate knowledge of life in Montfermeil, is quite extraordinary.
Les Misérables is a brilliant piece of realist filmmaking. As a tense, pulsating cop thriller it works a treat, but it’s more than that. It’s a cri de cœur from an angry and extremely talented young writer/director who’s graduated from the school of hard knocks and has plenty to say about inequity in French society and its costs. Don’t miss.
Movie Website: https://www.lesmiserables.movie/
La Belle Époque screening dates (2019-20 Lotterywest Perth Film Festival):
Somerville: 27 Jan – 2 Feb, 8pm
For complete list of film reviews published on this site see Movie Review Archives