The new film Les Misérables may take only passing glances to Victor Hugo’s text but it does boast a synopsis worthy of the sheer exuberance of that title. Hugo wrote his classic novel in the early-to-mid 19th century, but this film couldn’t be more wired-in to contemporary Paris if it tried. In it, we see the fuse of gang warfare lit when a young man, named Issa (Issa Perica), steals a lion cub from a traveling circus. Issa is a black kid in Saint-Denis, a buzzing multi-cultural suburb in the north of the French capital. The circus owners are Gypsy travelers. The most seemingly reasonable community leader is an ex-con turned Muslim Brotherhood sage named Salah (Almamy Kanoute), who runs the local kebab shop. The unofficial mayor of the block (Steve Tientcheu) wears not a shirt and tie but a jersey of the French national team with “Le Maire” on the back. The Javert to his Jean Val-Jean is a racist cop who at one point shouts “I am the law.” Almost everyone hopes to see the cub returned so as to bring things back to their delicate equilibrium. The whiff of rebellion might linger–along with Salah’s rotating lamb meat–but we are a far, far shot from crew-cut Anne Hathaway and talk-singing Hugh Jackman.
Les Misérables is–incredibly, it should be said–the first feature of Ladj Ly, a 39-year-old Saint Denis native and a product of Kourtrajmé, a short film collective that was set up by Romain Gavrais and Kim Chapiron in 1994. (Gavrais’ artistic fingerprints can be seen all over Ly’s fascination with football jerseys and male tribalism.) The film expands on a short Ly shot a couple of years back (also titled Les Misérables and winner of the best short film at France’s prestigious César awards) that focused on an anti-crime unit and the brutality of their policing. The same actors reprise their roles here in a debut that pops like a stun grenade despite the conventions of its opening sequences, the first of which takes place on the day of France’s world cup win last year, a rare unifying moment for the nation. Ly suggests that the only thing each of his characters–perhaps each of his countrymen–has in common is how good they think Kylian Mbappé (a French striker, notably of Algerian and Cameroonian heritage) really is.
The majority of the film takes place a short time after. We meet Stéphane, a rural police officer who has recently been transferred to an inner-city crime unit. Ly positions Stéphane as the slightly green-around-the-gills idealist of the team. His new mentor, Chris (Alexis Manenti, who co-wrote the script with Ly and Giordano Gederlini), is his opposite, a hardened racist who wants to–as he so eloquently puts it–pop Stéphane’s cherry. So far, so Training Day. It is only after these exchanges that Ly’s film starts to go up through the gears, zooming out all of a sudden to show a panorama of the neighborhood’s social–and indeed antisocial–ecosystem. We’re introduced to Issa and his young classmates; Salah and his incendiary crew; the local drug dealers; the police commissioner (Jeanne Balibar); a Gypsy circus owner named Zorro (Raymond Lopez); and a host of others. What compels is the fragility of their queasy coexistence. Indeed, something’s gotta give.
A great deal has been considered here. Throwing shade on any notion that one can only go big after one’s first feature, Ly makes a concerted effort to go beneath the topsoil of conventional Parisian crime films. Indeed, his script takes the time to show seemingly inconsequential things that go on behind the suburb’s closed doors, moments of rich contextual value if not obvious narrative importance–like a group of women counting money for a co-operative loan system–that give the sense of a whole world in motion. A key character is a bespectacled young lad named Buzz (Al-Hassan Ly) who flies a drone around from the roof of his block. Buzz’s camera allows the viewer both a voyeur’s eye view of the neighbor’s windows but also a bird’s-eye view of the landscape. This piece of equipment will only deliver on its obvious Chekhovian qualities–not to mention the echos of Rear Window–at a later point.
Les Misérables‘ greatest trick–and one that speaks volumes of its young director–is that it introduces the viewer to over a dozen fully considered characters without ever compromising the breakneck, adrenal-gland opening speed of the narrative and I couldn’t help but think of Romeo + Juliet at times, Baz Luhrmann’s own crime drama riff on classic literature, in which Tybalt and Benvolio were introduced like gunslingers in a Sergio Leone western. Ly’s film is more sober, more sobering and, unlike Luhrmann, more ironically indebted to its namesake, even if the director nods to Hugo’s line that “the darkest night will end and the sun will rise” by almost closing his narrative with a dark day ending and the sun going down. A moment to draw the curtain that proves to be, merely, a moment to draw the breath. Indeed, the sun does rise again for Ly’s bloody finale, which is ever so slightly redundant but still well worth sticking around for.
Les Misérables premiered at Cannes Film Festival and will be released by Amazon Studios and opens on January 10.