VOD film review: Les Miserables (2019)
James R | On 28, Jan 2021
Director: Ladj Ly
Cast: Damien Bonnard, Alexis Manenti, Djebril Zonga
“One day more!” are three words you can safely not expect to hear in Ladj Ly’s Les Miserables, a tense, tough drama set in the east suburbs of Paris. But this gripping, hard-hitting drama has the same issues of inequality, division, police brutality, poverty and conflict ringing in its ears.
The film immerses us in the neighbourhood of Montfermeil, where Issa (Issa Perica) and his friends are thrilled to join the crowds celebrating the 2018 World Cup final. Blending into the heaving, diverse mass of people pouring on to the Champs-Élysées, they’re just a small group in a large sea of faces, but they soon find themselves singled out by the plain-clothed police unit that patrols their home town.
That happens, believe it or not, amid a case involving a missing lion cub from a travelling circus. But this is a film that’s all too easy to believe, painting the streets of the Les Bosquets estate where Issa lives with vivid detail. Tellingly, we don’t just see these streets from his perspective: we also look at them through the lens of the police, specifically Stéphane (Damien Bonnard), the new recruit who falls in with Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Gwada (Djebril Zonga) to keep a lid on crime – sometimes with an approach that’s a little too forceful for Stéphane’s (and our) taste.
Ly, who has a background in documentaries, has a real knack for capturing the nuances and complexities of the dynamics that hold a community together. His script, co-written with Giordano Gederlini, doesn’t shy away from the shades of grey that exist on all sides of the projects, from “The Mayor”, a respected local who watches over the market with dubious methods, to the disreputable officers given non-lethal weapons to discharge when necessary.
When one particular incident of violence is caught on camera by a young boy’s drone, all parties collide to try and reconcile the matter – either by getting the footage and covering it up or by simply getting even. Retaliation feels like an inevitable endgame and the gradually escalating events (matched by a widening scale and scope) barrel along with tangible suspense. Throughout, the tensions of the 2015 riots linger in the background, heated up by the scorching summer temperature to produce a threatening, oppressive atmosphere. When violence does erupt, it’s more Attack the Block meets La Haine than Victor Hugo, but there’s a blazing, blistering relevance to this snapshot of a modern country where civil unrest still lingers beneath the civil surface. “There are no such things as bad seeds, only bad cultivators,” Hugo wrote years ago in the very same suburb in which Les Miserables is set. Today, that truth is just one more day in an ongoing reality.