It is not hard to see why France chose Ladj Ly's debut feature film as their selection for the Oscars last year. It is a potboiler thriller that has ingredients of the likes of Training Day as it goes about lifting the lid on the live wire tension that exists between the police and organised crime in the Parisian suburbs. In light of more recent events involving police brutality, reading Ly's film objectively proves a near-impossible task, making this a difficult and dense film to unpack, and not necessarily in the way one imagines Ly intended.
Set in the same town where many of Victor Hugo's characters hailed from in the novel that shares the film's name, Ly follows most of the action from the perspective of police officer Stéphane (Damien Bonnard). He's new to the streets of Montfermeil and has been placed with a Special Crimes Unit, who know the area and aim to keep the peace amongst the clash of local cultures. Tensions come to a boiling point however, as a case involving a kidnapped lion leads to a cataclysmic event that sees the authorities begin to lose their grip on the warped sense of control that they have over the town.
There aren't many similarities between Ly's Les Misérables and Hugo's beyond the location. Shadows of certain characters exist in this Montfermeil, but what largely remains is the sense of a system that is fundamentally broken. The lasting note that this film has is one that states that the conditions across the city are as a result of systematic issues. But while that may be the overall lesson to be learned here, it's a message that gets a little lost in the chaos.
Much of the film is told from the perspective of Stéphane and his two colleagues, Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Gwada (Djebril Zonga). Stéphane is concerned about what he sees, from the blatant racist and sexist actions Chris takes in his aggressive enforcement of the law, to Gwada's complicit indifference. Seeing these streets largely through the eyes of these officers does allow for dips and dives into the different cultures that make up the community. These moments following the officers on their routine in the early parts of the film are when it is at its most absorbing. The cinematography is unexpected, audacious and electric, giving a kinetic sense of life to these suburbs.
These dips and dives into how the hierarchy of the community works is very successful, even if some of the stories get a little lost. It's an unwieldy narrative to master, and Ly chooses to keep it controlled through the perspective of the officers. As it all boils over into a very tense final act, there is the niggling sense that these events would be clicking together in a more satisfying manner if certain levels of perspective were more fleshed out, particularly regarding the life of the young Issa, the closest this Les Mis has to a Gavroche. A more balanced perspective between the larger authorities and the individual lives of the young characters who have to find a way to grow up in this environment feels as though it wants to emerge from the story, but never quite gets the room to do so.
Instead, what unfolds is not dissimilar to the beats of Training Day, or other dramas that focus on tensions between police and the citizens they should be protecting. But that being said, there is plenty to admire about Ly's first feature, and much of that comes from the shooting style and the immersive quality of his craft. Casting largely unknowns goes a long way to selling the reality of the film, with every performance ringing with a sense of authenticity that makes the drama all the more palpable. The combination of handheld cinematography and the more voyeuristic drone footage create the atmosphere of an environment that is ready to boil over, and with eyes constantly on it ready to hold people to account. With further propulsion from a electrifying Pink Noise score, it's easy to get swept up in the action, even if the point of perspective often feels a little frustrating.
Les Misérables is an easy film to admire, and one that provokes uncomfortable questions and offers no easy answers. In light of recent news and revolutionary action, it feels slightly out of step, but it does offer plenty of food for thought. It's a chaotic world it depicts, and that it can often feel hard to be objective towards it is part of the deal. Its execution occasionally feels frustrating, if only because it comes so close to offering something a bit more distinct. That it should be difficult to talk about (and write about) demonstrates its complexities, and at the very least it is bound to spark a lot of difficult conversations, many of which we are likely already having.
Dir: Ladj Ly
Scr: Ladj Ly, Giordano Gederlini, Alexis Manenti
DOP: Julien Poupard
Music: Pink Noise
Run time: 103 minutes
Les Misérables is released in cinemas from September 4th.