Les Misérables (2019)

Les Misérables is an explosive first feature about simmering racial tensions in a Paris banlieu from Malian-French actor and director Ladj Ly.

Fire in the Streets

by Alexa Dalby

Les Misérables

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Victor Hugo’s classic 19th century social commentary Les Misérables inspired the film and, more recently, the 2005 riots in Paris.

Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables spans two days in the life of Montfermeil a touch, impoverished, neglected banlieu northeast of Paris: it’s where Cosette first meets Jean Valjean in Hugo’s novel, and it’s director Ly’s own home patch. Though the film starts with footage of unifying football celebrations in the Champs-Élysées, the reality is that the run-down streets and blocks of high-rise flats in this deprived suburb are ready to erupt with racial tensions, with the lid kept violently on the angry underclass of many nationalities, mainly African and Arabic heritage immigrants by (mainly white) police brutality. For now.

It’s the first day in the precinct for honest provincial cop Stephane (Damien Bonnard), newly transferred into the inner city, out on a three-man patrol with crooked, brutal, white commander Chris (Alexis Manenti) and his quiet sidekick Gwada (Djibril Zonga), a Montfermeil local, whose loyalties become strained to breaking point.

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 for a pet. “The cub is clearly a metaphor for being deprived of freedom, of being unnaturally trapped,” Ly says. The ‘Gypsies’ (so-called) from the circus turn threatening after the theft and the Muslims, the Africans, their community leaders – the unofficial ‘mayor’ and imam – and crooks and a large gang of local kids get involved in the search against time for the dangerous cub as police try to contain the violence that erupts all around.

But meanwhile it’s all being filmed by young nerd Buzz’s (Al-Hassan Ly) drone overhead and the police also have to track down Buzz, who is hiding within the maze of tenements in his neighbourhood, so they can retrieve the damning footage of their violent treatment of the residents before he can upload it to the web.

There’s an incredibly tense unravelling of these strands that builds to a shocking revenge. Urgent hand-held camerawork and heartfelt ensemble performances make for a shattering immersion into an immigrant community’s life in the French capital. France’s President Macron was reportedly so shocked by what the film showed that he launched an investigation.

Les Misérables premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Jury Prize, it won the César for best film, and is released on 4 September 2020 in the UK. The film has been nominated for a variety of awards including a Golden Globe and an Academy Nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.

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