By Ryan Keating-Lambert
Ladj Ly’s debut feature film Les Misérables is less musical than its name suggests… It’s a tense little gang thriller set in the modern-day Montfermeil district of Paris, where Victor Hugo’s classic novel ‘Les Misérables’ was written, whose explosive third act feels wholly original and timely.
Screening in the hits section of this year’s French Film Festival, Misérables is set around the first day of new beat cop Ruiz (Damien Bonnard) who after being shown the ropes, is thrown, is thrown head-first into a local gang conflict, only made worse by his trigger-happy officer squad.
Ly’s film feels so real at times that it’s borderline documentary. The director, who was born and raised in Montfermeil, has lived through similar unrest to what the film portrays, which is maybe why it feels so damn real.
The film opens with the recent French World Cup win that feels more haunting than victorious – an illusion of a united France which is soon shattered as Les Misérables steadily exposes the darker underbellies and conflicts of the city through its unique characters, most of whom are played by non-actors from the district, and its expert use of tension. The cop trio, which also includes Djibril Zonga as ‘Gwada’ and Alexis Manenti as ‘Chris’, make for a dynamic that feels a bit like a French Training Day.
The trio meet many memorable characters along the way. The Mayor (Steve Tientcheu) is a particularly interesting one – somewhere between political councilor and gang leader. It’s through these characters that we’re gradually introduced to just how complex and sensitive the situation is in Monfermeil. Apparently, President Macron was stunned after seeing it in a private screening.
Although new cop Ruiz tries to keep everything by the book, he’s constantly thrown into illegal, embarrassing, and sometimes dangerous situations which are tense, but still not without a sense of humour or irony. These guys, especially the short-tempered Chris, are the kind of cops you see in the news a lot these days.
Unsurprisingly, after a number of unwarranted investigations and childish chases over the cutest missing lion cub you’ll see in cinema this year, an injured local forces the team to take drastic measures to protect both their careers and their lives – made all the more powerful by Julian Poupard’s raw cinematography and Ly’s rich characters.
And that’s where this seemingly safe genre movie turns into all out madness on screen, and it’s a refreshing spin that you’re either going to love or hate… but for the record, I loved it.