×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Cannes Film Review: ‘Les Misérables’

French docmaker Ladj Ly's promising narrative debut simmers with urgent anger over police brutality, but could use more civilian perspective.

Director:
Ladj Ly
With:
Damien Bonnard, Alexis Manenti, Djebril Zonga, Steve Tientcheu, Issa Perica, Al-Hassan Ly, Almamy Kanoute, Raymond Lopez, Jeanne Balibar

1 hour 44 minutes

“C’est moi, le loi!” screams a bent cop midway through “Les Misérables.” If he’s trying to emulate the comic-book indomitability of Judge “I am the law” Dredd, his shrill, panicked delivery is a dead giveaway to the contrary. In both a practical and a moral sense, being the law counts for less and less as French docmaker Ladj Ly’s first fiction feature unfolds: A buzzing, sunstruck street thriller, it pits a nervous, trigger-happy police force against an aggravated urban underclass in a battle of wills and weaponry that is all too universally recognizable. Exploring the worn-out housing projects of the director’s own home turf — the outlying Parisian commune of Montfermeil — with a keen eye and an antsy gait, it’s a furious work of social geography that satisfies slightly less as a character piece: In its ambitious attempt to dramatize the violent anxieties of men on both sides of the law, “Les Misérables” risks selling some victims a little short.

A certain other “Les Misérables” also took Montfermeil as its setting, of course: Ly’s choice of title is a brash, audacious one, but its invocation of Victor Hugo’s 1862 opus is no empty gesture. As a statement of new-generation intent, symbolically reclaiming a national-treasure text to reflect the more diverse reality of contemporary France, it makes its point immediately. The title appears over introductory documentary footage of reveling masses in the wake of France’s 2018 World Cup victory, a more positive demonstration of the patriotic brio that powered the 19th-century tome. It’s the last time you’ll hear the people sing in Ly’s film, which otherwise makes wholly grave references to Hugo’s work: “There are no bad plants or bad men; there are only bad cultivators,” runs a choice onscreen quote.

Viewers may be inclined to disagree after spending some time in the cop car that literally drives Ly’s film through the concrete wilds of Les Bosquets, Montfermeil’s most notorious and crime-ridden social estate: It would take an especially generous judge of character to identify no bad men inside it. Ly’s screenplay, co-written with Giordano Gederlini and Alexis Manenti, takes a rookie’s-first-day structure familiar from “Training Day” and countless others of its ilk, introducing a mediating conscience of sorts in the form of Stéphane (Damien Bonnard), a level-headed, by-the-book policeman newly transferred to Les Bosquets from a less fraught precinct.

Though he’s taken off-guard by the volatile nature of everyday life in the area, he’s even less prepared for the extreme corruption of the two Anti-Crime Squad officers he’s assigned to shadow. Chris (played by Manenti, equal parts electrifying and repulsive) is a nakedly racist, short-fused bully, given to harassing or actively assaulting teenagers for sport. His black partner Gwada (compelling model-turned-actor Djebril Zonga) occasionally balks at Chris’ behavior, but recklessly abuses his own power; even in the course of a single day, this close-quarters complicity threatens to infect the horrified Stéphane too.

Ly and editor Flora Volpelière begin proceedings at a surprisingly leisurely but nonetheless engrossing pace, taking nearly an hour to observe and absorb the intricately conflicting power dynamics of the estate, where the shady local mayor Steve Tientcheu enjoys a brittle, mutual look-the-other-way pact with Chris and Gwada, while an assortment of restive gangs — Muslim Brotherhood members, Romany circus workers and, perhaps most powerfully, overlapping factions of seething teenagers — clash and chafe in their shadow. When the debatably named Anti-Crime Squad gets roped into one of these initially minor disputes, tensions on a hot, irritable day boil over to near-riot levels, culminating in a breath-suspending cops-versus-kids standoff that sees one boy hit in the eye by a police flashball. When another kid’s drone camera captures the incident, the stakes, and ensuing chase, are intensified — along with the surging hum of Pink Noise’s effectively minimalist electro score.

Occasionally recalling the more urgent, ragged work of Spike Lee in its feverish, on-the-ground formal energy, “Les Misérables” is aptly galling as a study of everyday power structures tested and exploited to breaking point; its best scenes are combative in the discomfort they raise, prodding viewers to ask if, when and how they would intervene in various ugly displays of unchecked authority. Ly’s film has little in the way of sympathy for the police, yet it’s surprising that the bulk of its action is viewed through their alternately jaded and terrified eyes. We are given far less internal access to the various oppressed groups under their crooked thumb, at least until another June Rebellion of sorts gathers pace. No single resident of Les Bosquets emerges as a character half so vivid and exposed as either good cop or bad cop; rather, the film winds up grouping them in a hurried, imprecise strokes. You might say a negligent social system does the same thing.

That’s a disappointing oversight, since Ly’s debut otherwise bristles auspiciously with life and wit at the fringes of an already frayed society; in collaboration with dynamic d.p. Julien Poupard, Ly shoots his chosen terrain with a brisk but intimate sense of community that can’t be tourist-faked. (Meanwhile, leave it to a gifted docmaker to find a genuinely eerie, narratively integral application for that most overused of currently trendy camera techniques: the serenely drifting drone shot.) Expanded from a César-nominated short film of the same name, “Les Misérables” has been stylishly and efficiently shaped from — per the film’s press notes — over 100 hours of rushes. Perhaps, however, it could use a little more of its literary namesake’s vast, sociable sprawl.

Cannes Film Review: 'Les Misérables'

Reviewed at Cannes Film festival (competing), May 15, 2019. Running time: 104 MIN.

Production: (France) A SRAB Films production in co-production with Rectangle Prods., Lyly Films in association with Cinéventure 4, Cinefeel 4. (International sales: Wild Bunch, Paris.) Producers: Toufik Ayadi, Christophe Barral. Co-producer: Edouard Weil.

Crew: Director: Ladj Ly. Screenplay: Ly, Alexis Manenti, Giordano Gederlini. Camera (color): Julien Poupard. Editor: Flora Volpeliere. Music: Pink Noise.

With: Damien Bonnard, Alexis Manenti, Djebril Zonga, Steve Tientcheu, Issa Perica, Al-Hassan Ly, Almamy Kanoute, Raymond Lopez, Jeanne Balibar

Music By: ,

More Film

  • Siberia Keanu Reeves

    Saban Films Turns 5: How the Indie Studio Grew While Rivals Faltered

    Saban Films doesn’t make the most noise. It doesn’t have the splashiest premieres or parties. But the indie film label just quietly did what many of its early rival failed to pull off. It celebrated its fifth anniversary at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. More Reviews Shanghai Film Review: 'My Dear Friend' Film Review: 'Emanuel' [...]

  • Emanuel

    Film Review: 'Emanuel'

    Mass shootings continue to be a shameful stain on contemporary American history. They strike at such a frequent rate that the way they occupy news cycles before losing the public’s short-spanned attention has become appallingly routine. With his somber documentary “Emanuel,” released by Fathom Events in theaters for two nights only (June 17 and 19), [...]

  • Men in Black International

    Box Office: 'Men in Black: International,' 'Shaft' Add to Summer Sequel Slump

    As “Men in Black: International” and “Shaft” join the growing list of under-performing sequels this summer — an ignominious group that includes “Dark Phoenix” and “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” — worries of franchise fatigue are beginning to simmer in Hollywood. More Reviews Shanghai Film Review: 'My Dear Friend' Film Review: 'Emanuel' “Franchises that don’t [...]

  • Song Ge

    Beijing Culture's Song Ge Urges Mainstream Directors to Toe Government Line

    The publicity-shy chief of Beijing Culture, which has backed such Chinese mega-hits as “Wolf Warrior II” and “The Wandering Earth,” openly urged film directors Monday to stick to material pleasing to the Chinese state, for the sake of their investors. More Reviews Shanghai Film Review: 'My Dear Friend' Film Review: 'Emanuel' “If you’re shooting an [...]

  • Iran presentation at Shanghai film festival

    Shanghai: China-Iran Heading Towards Co-Production Treaty

    “China has signed co-production agreements with 22 countries. Similar agreements between Iran and China are in the works, and will be signed by the end of this year,” said Miao Xiaotian, GM of the China Film Co-Production Corporation on Monday. More Reviews Shanghai Film Review: 'My Dear Friend' Film Review: 'Emanuel' Miao was speaking at the Shanghai [...]

  • Steven-spielberg-west-side-story-first-look-jets-sharks

    ‘West Side Story’ First Look Shows Cast of Steven Spielberg’s Upcoming Musical

    The first look at the Jets and the Sharks in Steven Spielberg’s upcoming version of “West Side Story” has been unveiled by 20th Century Fox. More Reviews Shanghai Film Review: 'My Dear Friend' Film Review: 'Emanuel' The musical, about young love and the tension between rival gangs the Jets and the Sharks on the streets [...]

  • Roland Emmerich

    Shanghai: Roland Emmerich, Frant Gwo on China's Sci-fi Prospects

    Iconic Chinese and Hollywood directors Frant Gwo and Roland Emmerich did not take the stage together at the Shanghai International Film Festival, but on Monday they got the chance to praise each other’s movies and share insights into sci-fi. More Reviews Shanghai Film Review: 'My Dear Friend' Film Review: 'Emanuel' “I totally understand why it [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content