Though Victor Hugo’s classic novel—and its themes of the haves and have-nots, challenging a corrupt authority and the oppression of poverty—factor into Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables, the film is not another remake of the story of Jean Val Jean, Inspector Javert and company. Instead, the debut feature film from the French filmmaker is set in the present day and said to be inspired by the riots that country endured in 2005. Driven by tense race relations, cultural clashes and a general sense of frustration with under-employment and lack of upward mobility, the riots put the suburbs of Paris in turmoil for three weeks.
But rather than let his film be consumed by similar chaos (at least at first), Ly sets his focus on a very specific community just outside of Paris, Montfermeil (where some of Hugo’s Les Mis takes place, actually), the police who patrol the community and the youth who live there. Mainly the children of Muslim immigrants from various backgrounds, they spend the hot summer days playing soccer in the local park and getting into bits of unremarkable mischief (Buzz (Al-Hassan Ly), for example, uses his drone to record girls from outside their bedroom windows). The policemen on the beat include Chris (Alexis Manenti), a cowboy just itching for a fight; Gwada (Djibril Zonga), himself an immigrant who now patrols the streets where he grew up; and Ruiz (Damien Bonnard), a recent transfer assigned to patrol with the partners to get a feel for the community.
The trio check in with the locals and Chris ruffles a few feathers, but all signs point to another ordinary day in this workaday neighborhood. They’re called to diffuse a potentially volatile confrontation when a Romani family in town with a traveling circus shows up at a local housing complex accusing its black residents, and a local godfather figure (Steve Tientcheu, simply known as The Mayor) in particular, of stealing the show’s beloved lion cub. The confrontation is tense, nearly explosive, and an early indicator of just how much pressure this community is under without any sign of constructive relief.
It’s troublemaker Issa (Issa Perica) who’s stolen the cub, and when Chris, Gwada and Ruiz try to arrest him in an effort to mitigate any further clashes between the two communities, a swarm of local boys come to his defense and start fighting back, the three cops far out-numbered by a gang of kids with nothing but time on their hands and a strong resentment for authority. Except this confrontation does explode in unexpected ways, and Buzz’s drone catches it all on camera. Halfway into Ly’s drama, the showdowns are numerous and interconnected, and it’s not entirely clear who we’re supposed to feel worse for: the struggling community, the put-upon officers or the lost boys who’ve had to grow up far too fast.
Ly, who co-wrote the script with Manenti and Giordano Gederlini, does an exceptional job of immersing us in the neighborhood, from bustling local markets and claustrophobic building stairwells to soaring drone footage high above the rundown apartment complexes and concrete parks. The film is an expansion on Ly’s own 2017 short film of the same name, and that may be why, despite strongly written characters and compelling performances, the third act feels entirely tacked on as an exercise in over doing it. Even the final shot, one that leaves a significant narrative thread entirely up for interpretation, seems a bit of a cop-out for a film that, up until that point, had some very clear things to say.
In a bit of a surprise move, France selected Les Misérables as its submission to the Academy Awards (over what many anticipated to be Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire), but the move appears to have paid off—the film garnered a nomination earlier this week. It may not win (France hasn’t won the honor since 1992, and Korea’s Parasite will be hard to beat), but it’s a worthy honor for a very well made film, one that challenges audiences to consider a situation from every side and find sympathies in each one. Though it takes its premise a bit too far in the end, the trajectory of everyone involved in the various conflicts is nevertheless intriguing enough to go along for the nerve-wracking ride.