Cannes Film Festival: Les Misérables (2019)

Les Misérables is the explosive first feature from Ladj Ly, referencing Victor Hugo’s classic social commentary amid violently erupting present-day social tensions.

Do you hear the people?

by Alexa Dalby

Les Misérables

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Les Misérables is two days in the life of Montfermeil in the Paris banlieues, where Ly grew up and where Cosette first meets Jean Valjean in Hugo’s novel. The run-down streets and blocks of flats are brimming with racial tension with the lid kept on by police brutality. For now.

It’s the first day in the precinct for Stephane (Damien Bonnard), newly transferred in, out on a three-man patrol with crooked, brutal, racist white commander Chris (Alexis Manenti), who thinks he is doing his best to maintain order in his own way, and his quiet sidekick Gwada (Djibril Zonga), a Montfermeil local.

A bizarre incident makes the tension between the various ethnic groups boil over. A young boy, Issa (Issa Perica), steals a lion cub from the travelling circus. The ‘Gypsies’ from the circus turn threatening and Muslims, Africans, community leaders – the unofficial mayor (Steve Tientcheu) and local café owner imam (Almamy Kanouté) – and crooks and a large gang of kids get involved as police try to contain the violence that erupts.

But meanwhile it’s all being filmed by young nerd Buzz’s (Al-Hassan Ly) drone and the police have to retrieve the damning footage to save their own skins. It’s an incredibly tense unravelling that builds to a shockingly violent revenge.

There’s a scene of moral debate about the issues, thrown into relief by the arrival of the outsider Stephane, not hardened as his colleagues are, and the film also tellingly reveals the lives of the three cops as they go home after the end of another shattering day. But the angry focus is on the deprivation, injustice and boiling racial tensions in an overcrowded, deprived part of a prosperous city. It’s what could happen if this is allowed to continue as it is.

Urgent hand-held camerawork and passionate ensemble performances make for a shattering experience of some of the realities in French inner cities that are hard to acknowledge, both there and in other countries.

Les Misérables premiered at the Cannes Film Festival 2019, where it jointly won the Jury Prize and received a special mention in the Prix des Cinémas Art et Essai.

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