Les Miserables is a fervent fury essential for our times. Writer and director Ladj Ly’s feature debut follows Sergeant Ruiz who is assigned to a team of unethical police veterans working the Parisian suburb of Montfermiel. This vital film began life as a Cesar-nominated short, inspired by the 2005 riots in Paris. Last year the feature competed at Cannes, winning the Jury Prize (alongside Bacurau) and also garnering an Oscar nomination for Best International Feature. However, amongst all this success, its delayed cinematic release coming almost a year and a half after its initial Cannes premiere, couldn’t appear more timely.
France wins the World Cup and for one day, the country is united. Celebration fills the streets of Paris as the city is drenched in the colours of the Tricolore. Ly allows for a moment of national pride to fill the air in the film’s early stages. Presenting a utopia of what once was, and what could be, again. This same unity is echoed by the Police Chief who briefs Ruiz, “No Solidarity, no Team.” A sentiment that haunts rather than reassures – even more so now than it might have done last year – given the essential education that has taken place in 2020 on the poison of police brutality. Les Miserables is not here to explore and celebrate national pride, but rather to decimate it with a wave of raw and powerful anger.
The backdrop of the high-rise Montfermiel suburb is explored on the ground by a wonderful use of frantic handheld camerawork. Which only adds to the film’s intensity as tensions rapidly reach boiling point. Ly expands this exploration from above by including drone shots both technically and narratively, which show a unique view of the Montfermiel suburb. It reveals a vastness that cannot be seen from the ground and also gives the setting a claustrophobic nature, as if its residents are trapped, to be preyed on by the powers that be. These stunning drone shots also allow the audience a privileged perspective on the action, a perspective that will become significant as the narrative unfolds. All of which is edited together at a pace that slowly gains momentum as the narrative intensifies.
Ladj Ly’s decision to shoot this with documentary-style realism only further emphasises the truth that inspired it. Again inspired by the 2005 riots in Paris and a wealth of police brutality cases that went unchecked in France. Which further emphasises police brutality and systemic oppression as a serious global issue and not just specific to any one country. This commitment to realism is complimented brilliantly in the cast. Ly’s portrayal of police and the lowly criminals who run the action in Monterfermiel is so nuanced and complex that it could only be done by someone who lives and breathes this world.
Sergeant Cruz (Damien Bonnard) and Officers, Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Gwada (Djebril Zonga) make up the group of officers patrolling the suburb. Three dynamic and unique performances that clash brilliantly, revealing the many mindsets and approaches of those sworn to protect and serve. Alongside this is a wide ensemble cast of first-time actors and child actors all of whom are excellent and excel in Ly’s verite approach to the film. In-particular Issa Perica as Issa and Al-Hassan Ly as Buzz, who both put forward exceptional performances and excel in scenes which hinge on their portrayals.
Les Miserables truly leaves no prisoners in highlighting every element of what unfolds in this underworld that festers on social and racial oppression. A sensational collision of La Haine and Training Day, both of which are filled with intense anger and imagery that can be translated around the world. The imagery, although it can be translated globally is deeply steeped in a Parisian narrative. However, this is not the Paris shown to us in the usual haze of cinematic romanticism. To see a picturesque landmark in this world would almost appear alien or otherworldly. Yet, Ly clearly shows that they are they part of the same world and it is essential that the audience realise this. In Les Miserables, Ly presents the problem but does not offer a solution, rather a question, “What if voicing anger, was the only way to be heard?”
To have Les Miserables finally released in the UK now couldn’t be timed more perfectly and it forms an essential part of the on-going conversation on systemic racism, oppression and police brutality.