Ladj Ly’s debut feature is a stunning, explosive film that is both fresh and arresting
Debut films selected in competition at Cannes are rare – and whenever they do show up in the lineup, it’s usually a sign of confidence. This is definitely true in the case of Les Misérables, one of the best French films to come in a long time and a completely fresh take on the growing tensions between the French police and disadvantaged communities, particularly Arabs and Africans.
It is said that there are districts in France and Belgium that local authorities would not dare enter – and Les Misérables is the rare film to tackle this subject from a community perspective. It shows how and why disgruntled communities exist in France, just weeks after the French president had made a statement about the Muslim community’s radicalization within France and how this is a potential national threat. By asking big questions and choosing to answer them through the perspective of the children living on the margins, Les Misérables is one of the most timely and urgent French films of the year. Not only are its themes hefty and important, the film also manages to follow a fresh, honest and intense approach to a story that could have been otherwise delved into poverty porn or exaggerated dramatic tropes.
Set in Cherbourg, the exact place where Victor Hugo had written his opus Les Miserables, the story unfolds as a new officer, Stephane, joins local forces roaming the streets and alleys to confiscate drugs, catch thugs and ensure everything is in order. But things never are – particularly because of the children who are constant troublemakers. As things unfold, what starts as harmless child play soon turns into a real nightmare on the streets, culminating into a stunning finale that will glue viewers to their seat.
Ly expertly directs the film with confidence and style and brings magnificent performances from the entire cast especially the children. What is the source of violence and anger within these suburbs, the film asks? How has France become a place where entire neighborhoods have become locked-down areas that even the police can’t penetrate? What future do children there hold when all they’ve grown up to is poverty, violence and crime?
From Ly’s perspective the answer lies in cultivation. When Victor Hugo wrote his famed novel, he remarked on how the lines between good and evil simply do not exist – rather than classifying people into good and bad, evil and kind, perhaps it’s more important to look at their conditions and upbringing. That’s exactly the approach that Ly adopts here – and it’s only fitting to set this story in the very same town from which Hugo had written one of the most harrowing literary classics.
With excellent pacing, powerhouse performances, fantastic technical credits, Les Misérables is the first must-see film of Cannes. Regardless of its awards potential, this is a film that will become a crowd pleaser – a French Capharnaum that mainstream audiences will certainly embrace.