Mali-born filmmaker Ladj Ly broke out in a big way with the Oscar-nominated Les Misérables, a timely, gritty French drama based on Ly’s 2017 short of the same name (aka The Pitiful).
Based on an act of police violence that took place in France in 2008, the film is set around a 24-hour period and follows various individuals in the low socio-economic commune of Montfermeil (where Victor Hugo penned that titular literature) and, in particular, a group of police offers in the Anti-Crime Brigade. Our narrative protagonist, of sorts, is newly transferred officer Stéphane Ruiz (Damien Bonnard), who joins two long-timers on the beat. Ruiz is certainly in for a bad first day, as a theft from a teen kicks off a fateful series of events, leading him to discover both troubling behaviour from his co-workers and this underworld’s precarious hierarchy system that’s about to explode.
The film begins with what feels like a measured pace, introducing us to the various players and giving us a feel of the environment. These early events are almost deceptively simple and seemingly inconsequential, until one tense interaction follows another and the film kicks into crime-thriller territory. There’s a tangible fury carried in much of what follows, with characters on all sides simultaneously frustrated with their predicament and terrified of where it (or others) could leave them.
Ly’s direction is certainly assured for a first-time feature filmmaker. Working with cinematographer Julien Poupard (The Eddy), Ly captures Montfermeil in dynamic fashion, making it a breathing, beating character of its own. Importantly, there’s a realism here that drives it all. Having children populate much of the setting and play such important roles in the story is also key to the drama; innocence, it seems, can be lost all too easily in Montfermeil.
Perhaps the film’s screenplay, which Ly wrote with Giordano Gederlini and Alexis Manenti (who plays the film’s ruthless, live-wire cop, Chris), needed more originality to make the film more impactful. The beats and character motivations are quite familiar, and the story itself plays in what you realise is actually quite neat-and-safe form once all is said and done. There’s a lot here that reminds of films such Training Day and 1988’s Colors. Thankfully, the finale holds its own, ramping up the energy and stakes, and leaving us on a dour note that manages to encapsulate Ly’s overall argument hauntingly.
Les Misérables is certainly familiar in design, but there’s no denying that it’s well-crafted, attention-grabbing work. Ly has a big career ahead of him.
‘Les Misérables’ opens in limited Australian cinemas on August 27th. The film opened in the US on January 10th, 2020.