Those going into Ladj Ly’s “Les Misérables” expecting a retelling of Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel will be in for a big surprise. But Ly’s choice of title isn’t without reason. A chunk of Hugo’s classic takes place in the Parisian suburb of Montfermeil where Ly grew up. The neighborhood still suffers from crime, destitution, and an assortment of other social and class issues which Ly sets out to portray through an intensely personal lens.
This is Ly’s feature film directorial debut and it presents itself like a cross between a documentary and Denzel Washington’s “Training Day”. But the most striking aspect of the film is how true to life it is. Ly has stated that his goal for “Les Misérables” was to tell about life in this gritty community from the inside. From the very start the story feels authentic and firmly rooted within the merciless bounds of a poverty-stricken banlieue.
The movie opens with a crafty bit of misdirection as a mass of humanity gather throughout the streets of Paris to celebrate France winning the 2018 World Cup. We witness people of all races, creeds and colors side-by-side in a shared state of euphoria. It’s a picture of happiness and harmony. Then the title appears and Ly quickly snaps us back to reality.
Ly sets us down into the Montfermeil tinderbox with its factions, gangs, and (perhaps the biggest troublemakers) police. Our unsuspecting guide through it all is Stéphane (Damien Bonnard), the new member of an Anti-Crime squad that works the projects. He’s teamed with the abrasive and shamelessly bigoted Chris (Alexis Manenti who also cowrote the film) who bullies locals for the sheer enjoyment of it. And also the easygoing Gwada (Djebril Zonga) who was born and raised in the neighborhood. He has more of a conscience than Chris, but rarely uses it to rein his partner in.
As the cops patrol the community butting heads with various street personalities, another group is frequently in the background – the neighborhood kids. They are the real victims and play a variety of necessary roles in getting the story to its combustible ending. Most notably is a young boy named Issa (Issa Perica), a goodhearted but mischievous kid who has clearly been dealt a bad hand in life. He becomes a pawn in a power struggle between the three policeman and a shady local leader known as the Mayor (Steve Tientcheu).
Ly, Manenti, and fellow co-writer Giordano Gederlini keep the temperature at a steady simmer right up until the explosive final act which packs one heck of a kick. At times “Les Misérables” resembles a pretty standard police thriller, but I fell right in with its tense, fast-paced rhythm and it ends in a visceral place that shakes you up and leaves you with plenty to chew on.
REVIEW – 4 STARS