Les Miserables

LES MISERABLES. Starring: Damien Bonnard, Alexis Manenti, Djebril Zonga, Issa Perica, and Al-Hassan Ly. Directed by Ladj Ly. Rated MA 15+. restricted (Strong coarse language). 104 min.

This French subtitled drama is based on a short 2017 film of the same name made by the the Director (Ladj Ly), who was born of immigrant West African parents. It is his first full length feature film as Director and is based on actual events. It won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2019, and was awarded Best Film in the 2020, French Cesar Awards. The film deals with events that occur in the working-class suburb of Montfermeil, situated 28 miles from the centre of Paris.

The title of the film references the 1862 Victor Hugo novel, “Les Miserables”. Hugo’s novel was partially set in Montfermeil, and the film stresses the fate of those who lived there. Ladj Ly himself served a term behind prison-bars, following his lost legal-appeal in 2012. He was raised and lived in Montfermeil, and the making of the film was influenced by the 2005 riots in Paris, in which black youths lost their lives.

In the movie, Corporal Stéphane Ruiz (Damien Bonnard), a white police officer, is newly transferred to Montfermeil to help patrol the town. Working with a black immigrant officer named Gwada (Djebril Zonga), and under the authority of a bigoted white officer, named Chris (Alexis Manenti), Ruiz is assigned to work in a team to help him understand the environment around him.

The film has a documentary feel to it that offers strong comment on French political and social life, especially as it relates to people treated unjustly and brutal police behaviour: Chris sexually harasses a young girl at a bus stop, menaces residents in the town’s housing projects, and engages in racist bullying. The Police are hated by the townspeople, who regard the system that owns them as corrupt and unjust.

The film focuses in detail on one dramatic incident. A lion cub is stolen from a travelling circus by a local teenager, called Issa (Issa Perica), who wants the cub as a pet. Issa is pursued by the Police after fleeing, and he is shot. He lives, but the incident is drone-recorded by a young teenager (the Director’s son, Al-Hassan Ly). The Police fear a riot when they overstep the legal boundaries to investigate what happened. They are scared by the filming, and dread what might ensue. The Police and the residents of Montfermeil confront each other in rage.

In no way is this film a simple retelling of the story in Victor Hugo’s novel, though the themes of corrupt police authority, violent response, and rampant poverty are common to both Hugo’s novel and Ladj Ly’s film. The film tries to say “there is good and bad on both sides”, and the Director’s knowledge of Montfermeil and his personal experiences - both on the inside and the outside of prison walls - serve to effectively cement the overlap.

The film immerses viewers in the issues experienced by ethically mixed and diverse communities (Gipsy, Moslem, white, and black), trying to live together, and it challenges viewers to consider social-political events from multiple perspectives. The Police oppress while heavily stressed; the conditions of the poor show exactly why they respond in the way they do; and the tension among the different groups is played out movingly. The acting is impressively naturalistic and spontaneous, and Ladj Ly’s controlled direction is convincingly authentic.

The film is a compelling portrayal of misery and power, as the film moves to a shocking conclusion. Its opening scenes focus on the FIFA World Soccer Cup in July, 2018, which France won. We are shown how World Cups bring people jubilantly together, but the film soon shifts gear to show the grim reality of their actual lives. The potential for violence is constantly present.

This is a brilliant, well-crafted movie that explores traumatised life in ethnically diverse communities. It demonstrates the pain caused by racial inequality, civil unrest, and social injustice - where attempts at understanding remain elusive.

Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting

Rialto Distribution

Released August 27, 2020

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