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There is no moment in Ladj Ly’s feature-length directorial debut where a character breaks out into song. Yet, the film shares many themes with the iconic musical of the same name adapted from Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel.
Like Ly’s debut, Hugo’s novel was a layered exploration of corruption and how it can exist inside and outside the systems of law enforcement as told through the perspectives of several characters. And although there is a significant contrast between the original story and Ly’s film in terms of their time periods – the former being set against the backdrop the French Revolution and the other taking place in modern day France – both have a similar agenda. Hugo’s story essentially laid the foundations for Ladj Ly to deliver an intense and timely social commentary gut-punch of a film.
Les Misérables is heavily based upon Ly’s own personal experience growing up in the Montfermeil suburbs while also being loosely inspired by the riots which occurred in Paris back in 2005. Initially, the film follows Stéphane (Damien Bonnard) who has recently joined the Anti-Crime Squad and is paired up with the more experienced members Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Gwada (Djebril Zonga).
Like the novel that came before it, the narrative shifts around to the various people and groups that inhabit the area Stéphane and co patrol. These include juvenile delinquents such as Issa (Issa Perica), members of the Islamic community and even circus owners demanding back their stolen lion cub. Through differing perspectives, Ly tells a story about a community but one that is not unified – a sad realisation as the film opens with a fleeting sense of celebration and unification with the victory of France at the 2018 FIFA World Cup. It’s a rare peaceful moment in a movie that mostly weaves a portrait of division and hostility.
The way the film shifts dynamically and effortlessly between different characters on all sides of the law evokes other engaging police dramas such as The Wire. Ly, meanwhile, also does fantastic work finely tuning the tension like a guitar string. The constant arguing and bickering between different social groups, and even between members of law enforcement, slowly builds – always on the edge of spilling into violence. This is before the movie reaches an explosive culmination in its third act – transforming the film into a devastating and nail-biting siege thriller in the same vein of Assault on Precinct 13.
It is clear since Les Misérables’s initial release that its social commentary has been taken into consideration from a political perspective. The film reportedly encouraged the country’s president Emmanuel Macron to speak with the government to find ways to improve the living conditions in the banlieues.
Les Misérables is certainly a promising debut for Ladj Ly. Since its initial premiere at the Cannes Film Festival last year, it went on to become the big winner at last year’s César Awards and even earned a nomination for Best International Feature film at this year’s Academy Awards. It is definitely worthy of all its success but it is also a film that demands that its message be heard. And in the current era, it is a message that needs to be urgently listened to.