Cannes 2019: Ladj Ly's Incredibly Tense French Thriller 'Les Misérables'
by Alex Billington
May 16, 2019
There's a new film that just premiered at the Cannes Film Festival this year titled Les Misérables, but it has nothing to do with Victor Hugo's famous novel (of the same name) or the musical or any of that. It's a contemporary story set in a suburb outside of Paris, France, and it's a remarkably fresh, masterful feature directorial debut of a filmmaker named Ladj Ly. The festival is just getting going, but it's one of the best films I've seen here so far - impressive in every way, especially from someone making their first feature film. But damn does it rule. It's an intense watch. This Les Misérables is one of those intense films that you take a deep breath while watching, and only start breathing again once it's over. I admire how raw and honest and ambitious it is. The story gives us plenty to chew on, while never descending into negativity or hopelessness.
Ladj Ly's Les Misérables is a modern look at the relationships between cops and community (and citizens of all kinds), and the different generations of people that reside in every neighborhood. This is set specifically in a suburb outside of Paris that is known as one of "the projects", a very poor neighborhood still divided internally by religion and class. The film follows a new cop, played by Damien Bonnard, from outside of Paris who joins the two veteran cops already patrolling the suburb in plain clothes. They have relationships with everyone there, but things get out of hand and tensions start to boil over when a lion cub is stolen by local kids. There's hazy moral ambiguity from all sides, yet everyone is trying to keep things together - the shadow of the 2005 riots still hangs over them. Most of the film takes place over the course of one day, when something goes wrong, and they try to clean up their own mess before it gets really bad. Once you realize where it's headed, Ly hits hard with an awe-inspiring and awesome finale – an iconic, unforgettable ending.
The film opens with gorgeously captured footage of swaths of French people going crazy over winning the World Cup in 2018. It's a strong opening showing how a country can be united, and how everyone who lives there is indeed "French", yet later we see there are still divisions. And that's the overarching idea behind this film - and how it connects into Hugo's "Les Miserables". All of these people are French citizens, they're all deserving of the same rights and privileges as every other citizen, yet they live in poverty and are treated like the dirt they play in. That's just one theme present in the background throughout the film, as it focuses on everything else about the division between people, and how we often cover up foul play in order to keep things stable and safe. But maybe that isn't working? If we screw up, we screw up, and should acknowledge that. Or else these problems are going to get worse as it teaches people, especially impressionable younger generations, the wrong way to live in (what should be) a fair and just society. That's the big take away here.
In addition to the charged, riveting filmmaking, there's a positive edge to the film that really makes it stand out, especially when it gets really intense in the second half. I really loved seeing Ladj Ly's fresh vision and the choices he made with this story. I very much appreciate the way he gives us a bit of hope, and doesn't fall into the cinematic trap of death and destruction as the only way out. There are many carefully crafted scenes where I expected some sort of sabotage or gun fight to break out, but instead there's complex glimmers of humanity and nuanced conversations. And this can inspire us as people living in the real world to be better, to lead by example, to engage in thoughtful discussion. Don't mess with the kids. They are the future. Don't underestimate them, instead be their ally, show them that even as adults we must own up to our mistakes.
Alex's Cannes 2019 Rating: 9 out of 10
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