Reviews - Les Misérables
Reviewed By Ian Payne
Set in the Paris suburbs – the infamous banlieues - Les Misérables is the first feature length film by Director Ladj Ly, himself a resident of Montfermeil, where the action is set. It also happens to be where Victor Hugo set his novel of the same name – poverty and injustice do not change over time, it seems.
The area is characterised by huge, crumbling tower blocks and a multicultural, multiracial population, where daily life is unbelievably volatile. There are the kids' gangs, the corrupt local officials, the drug dealers and the Islamists, all with their own agendas, all with their own followers.
Add in an inept and brutal police squad and the spark that ignites the tinder box cannot be long in coming.
Director Ladj Li had been visualising this film since the 2005 riots. He said "This is a territory I really know. I grew up there and have been there for 30 years. These are people that I know... I'm just trying to describe the reality in an accurate way."
We see the estate through the eyes of Ruiz, a new recruit to the Police team and we are introduced both to the different factions in the area and the kids growing up there. Ruiz is pretty appalled at the attitude of his colleagues but it's a tough beat and unconventional measures may be what is needed.
When habitual young thief, Issa, steals a lion cub from the travelling circus, the circus crew threaten retribution and in an effort to prevent the violence, the Police find and arrest the young thief. The arrest goes badly wrong as Issa is severely injured and to compound matters, the incident is filmed by a young boy on his drone.
If made public, the resultant footage could wreck the careers of the Policemen and trigger massive civil unrest, or if it fell into the hands of the criminal gangs it would provide them untold leverage in future.
Ladj Ly builds up the layers of suspense superbly. As a long time resident he could have painted the Police as the only villains but he is realistic enough to recognise that no-one is blameless and all have their character flaws. It is the interplay of the different factions that makes this such a fine film.
Life and policing in Montfermeil is a matter of fragile compromise. The compromise reached on the drone footage appears to keep the peace, however the only group not involved in the negotiation – the young kids themselves – don't see any justice for Issa. The denouement of the film leaves us – and the estate - on a knife edge.
Les Misérables is the French entry for the Oscars and in his own Marcus Rashford moment, Ladj Ly has engaged with President Macron, using the film to highlight the plight of the banlieues. It appears that the message is getting through.
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