Ladj Ly’s supremely confident debut feature recalls the bitingly fierce critical voice of Victor Hugo’s classic novel, transplanting it into the estates and housing blocks of post-World Cup Paris. Set within the ‘93 district’ of Seine-Saint-Denis – a world predominantly inhabited by poor people of colour – Les Misérables pits a police squad against Paris’ underclass to incredible dramatic effect, employing a remarkable level of technical and creative fortitude, particularly for a debutant.
Ladj Ly’s vision of present-day Paris is one fueled by a furious anger at the economic inequality which rages throughout France. Ly’s anger at Paris’ upper classes, and how those below are ignored, manifests immediately through his opening shots of the arc de triomphe. Framed mere minutes after the French national team’s historic football win against Croatia last summer, the streets are packed shoulder-to-shoulder with citizens waving the Tricolour and chanting “Allez!” Witnessed through an epic wide shot, the scene evokes images of the large scale, working class furor which saturates the popular modern-day adaptations of Hugo’s Les Miserables, an obviously intentional nod.
The events of Ly’s Les Misérables – which carry out, mostly, across one day – are predominantly witnessed from the perspective of Damien Bonnard’s Stéphane, a newbie cop joining the three-man Anti-Crime Brigade of Montfermeil, a team notorious in the local community for their questions last, knuckles first approach. Perhaps somewhat naïve, Stéphane would prefer to employ a softer, more diplomatic touch – he engages with local community leaders to calm disputes, rather than acting with immediate violence. He’s well placed by Ladj Ly to act as an avatar for the audience, as we learn the nuances and rules of the Parisian backstreets alongside him.
One of the predominant community leaders is known only as The Mayor (Steve Tientcheu), a husky street soldier who wears a French national team shirt at all times, manifesting as a badge of working class respect and authority. The Anti-Crime Brigade utilize his stature with the locals to keep them under control, employing the respect he has earned and his streetwise know-how to avoid conflict between the neighborhood gangs, which are mostly split down religious and cultural lines. Control feels mostly out of the police’s hands regardless. There is a constantly nervous, palpable tension on both the streets and within the Anti-Crime Brigade. One kid on the street, Issa, is particularly infamous, the ‘Gavroche’ of Ly’s Paris; acting up regularly, stealing chickens, and eventually, a lion cub from the travelling circus organized by a gang of ruthless gypsies.
These leaders are so important under Ly’s microscopic lens because the film’s entire thesis is tied together by the idea that corrupt leaders are what lead to crime and immorality, rather than human nature. It’s a facet of French philosophy which has been explored extensively in the country’s literary canon. As Victor Hugo states in Les Miserables – and Ly recalls in the final frame of his film – “There are only bad farmers”. Issa and the other kids of the ghetto are neglected almost entirely by the authority figures they’re surrounded by, men who have only fleeting attention for their nurtured upbringing, motivated more by greed. They too are oppressed, though, as Ly is keen to point out: by disenfranchisement, by economic dislocation, and by their own internal disputes.
And this is all without discussing Ly’s remarkable technical finesse for a first-time feature director (he had previously filmed a short version of Les Miserables in 2017 to great acclaim, but it was little more than a proof of concept). His script, a fast-paced thriller, is structured wonderfully to avoid any redundancy of time. Expectations are subverted not for the sake of subversion, but in a nuanced, authentic manner which ramps up the film’s dramatic strength and edge-of-your-seat tension. Perhaps more attention could be paid to Issa’s perspective – it is rather heavily weighted towards the Anti-Crime Brigade, the film mostly ignoring the yearn for a traditional antagonist, sans Alexis Manenti’s ruthless, racist, homophobic Chris – but this is a small fault in an otherwise pristine feature.
Will it win the Palme d’Or? It would certainly be a statement on the Jury’s part. Perhaps a warranted statement, given Cannes’ growing reputation as a festival bemoaning change, a symbol of European cinema’s dusty, pretentious hegemony. Ladj Ly, after all, is an incredibly talented, young person of colour in an industry saturated by old, white, male faces whose outputs, perhaps as implied by The Dead Don’t Die’s general limpness, are becoming increasingly fragile. We’ll have to see what else comes with the competition – as I’m writing this, reviews for Mati Diop’s Atlantique are pooling out, and they’re very, very good – but it must be in the running. It simply must.