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Victor Hugo’s majestically sprawling account of poverty and revolt in 19th century France is not given so much an update, or even an official adaptation, as it is a major kick in the head in Ladj Ly’s Les Miserables, an explosive first feature that premiered in competition in Cannes.
Set in the director’s native banlieue of Montfermeil, which is also the setting for parts of the famous novel (Cosette and Jean Valjean first cross paths there in Volume II), the film is something like Hugo’s classic story remixed by The Wire and Training Day — a gritty and fiery urban thriller underscored by scathing social commentary on the current state of the Paris suburbs, depicted here as a powder keg ready to pop.
Heavy-handed and predictable in spots, yet engrossing and provocative in others, it’s an impressive if somewhat unruly debut that could play big at home and find takers abroad, where comparisons to banlieue flicks like La Haine and Dheepan are likely.
With enough characters to fill an entire TV series, but a plot that’s streamlined for a regular feature, most of Les Miserables (which was written by Ly, Giordano Gederlini and co-star Alexis Manenti) takes place in a single day, following the travails of a three-man crime unit patrolling Montfermeil’s perilous streets and housing projects. (Ly previously made a Cesar-nominated short with the same subject, cast and title.)
The team consists of veteran squad leader Chris (Manenti), aka “the Pink Pig,” a crooked trash-talking cop who operates outside the law to get the job done; Gwada (Djebril Zonga), a more guarded local who follows Chris’ orders without much argument; and newbie Stephane (Damien Bonnard) aka “Greaser,” who’s been transferred over from Cherbourg, in Normandy, in order to be closer to his son.
Stoical and highly observant, Stephane becomes our entry point to a place that feels much closer to HBO’s Deadwood than to a town located only an hour east of the Eiffel Tower. Lawlessness, or at least a kind of organized criminal hierarchy, rules the land, with various groups competing for territory and forever on the verge of violence.
Like David Simon’s multilayered depiction of Baltimore in The Wire, Ly attempts to reveal the full topography of Montfermeil, from the kids left largely to their own devices on the street, to the wheelers and dealers operating without much impunity in the projects, to the gypsies (as they are called) running a traveling circus, to the Muslim Brotherhood members trying to impose their religious order upon the hood.
A few key players emerge once the plot kicks in, which involves a little thief named Issa (the moving Issa Perica) stealing a baby lion from the circus and nearly starting a gang war between the gypsies, led by the combative Zorro (Raymond Lopez), and the locals, led by their self-pronounced crime boss of a “Mayor” (Steve Tientcheu).
The cops intervene in the hope of staving off the chaos, but when Gwada fires a flash-ball gun and nearly takes Issa’s eye out, things go from bad to worse to nuclear in the course of a few hours, with Stephane — the only policeman who has a moral compass — doing what he thinks is right but not necessarily making things better.
Indeed, Les Miserables reveals how the actions of a few, whether righteous or not, can change little about a place that’s been more or less abandoned by the French authorities (except by the police, that is) and left to stir in its own mayhem. It feels like an exaggeration at times, with Ly no doubt stretching reality for dramatic effect — sometimes too much so. But he also portrays Montfermeil with a fair amount of compassion and a keen sense of humor, showing how streetwise kids, hardened thugs and shady officers of the law are all trying to make ends meet in a dog-eat-dog world.
When Chris and Gwada attempt to cover up the shooting — which was filmed by a drone operated by a local nerd (Al-Hassan Ly) — and preserve some kind of order (though much more for themselves than for the safety of the neighborhood), the story shifts into fifth gear and heads straight toward its highly volatile finale. Like the opening sequences, which can be all too obviously expository, the third act is rather generic and forced down the viewer’s throat, though the filmmaking is intense enough to keep you hooked till the end.
Working with talented DP Julien Poupard (Divines), Ly captures every nook and cranny of his quartier with expressive authenticity, switching viewpoints from the squad’s roving unmarked police car to the drone capturing the action from a bird’s-eye vantage point. The images are accompanied by a stirring electro score from Pink Noise, which heightens the tension in key places and avoids the cliche of a typical hip-hop soundtrack for this kind of subject matter.
The music winds up lending something epic and yes, Hugo-esque, to Les Miserables, no more so than during a breathtaking opening sequence — captured documentary-style after last year’s World Cup final — where we see Issa and his buddies draped in blue-white-red flags, basking in the glory of Les Bleus’ victory. That the film begins with such a raucous celebration of national unity and ends in a violent insurrection against the powers that be is a clear statement on the situation of Montfermeil and other places like it in France. We may be more than two centuries past Hugo’s story, but for Ly the revolution is just as nigh.
Production companies: SRAB Films, Rectangle Productions, Lyly Films
Cast: Damien Bonnard, Alexis Manenti, Djebril Zonga, Issa Perica, Al-Hassan Ly, Steve Tientcheu, Almany Kanoute
Director: Ladj Ly
Screenwriters: Ladj Ly, Giordano Gederlini, Alexis Manenti
Producers: Toufik Ayadi, Christophe Barral
Director of photography: Julien Poupard
Production designer: Karim Lagati
Costume designer: Marine Galliano
Editor: Flora Volpeliere
Composer: Pink Noise
Sales: Wild Bunch
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