Remember this, my friends, there are no such things as bad plants or bad men. There are only bad cultivators.

Les Misérables

A cop from the provinces moves to Paris to join the Anti-Crime Brigade of Montfermeil, discovering an underworld where the tensions between the different groups mark the rhythm. Over the course of one hot summer day, tensions will rise to unseen heights between the community and those who are supposed to keep them safe.

Ladj Ly confronts its viewers with issues such as racism and violence, without ever really picking a side. His film is basically a two-parter. The first half being an engrossing look behind-the-scenes of undercover cops in this particular banlieu, that also deals with confrontations between community members, and the police officers that are still getting to know each other. The second half on the other hand is one of the most tense and provocative pieces of cinema, that deals with police brutality and injustice.

What drives ‘Les Misérables‘ is all its unique perspectives on different events, leading to the apocalyptic ending that’s as timely as they come. Ly’s confident film making elevates the typical ‘banlieu’-tropes, giving you a taste of France’s cultural divide almost as if it’s a documentary on the projects itself. What’s refreshing to see, is the very talented ethnically diverse cast that breathes life into this consuming story.

The newly transferred brigadier Ruiz (Damien Bonnard – ‘J’accuse‘), who’s used to doing everything by the book, is unknowingly thrown into some sort of hazing ritual by his new colleague duo – the racist stereotypical cowboy “Pink Pig” Chris (Alexis Manenti, who also co-wrote the film’s screenplay) and respectful better half Gwada (Djebril Zonga – ‘Cést tout pour moi‘). When a standoff between the circus gypsies and self-proclaimed mayor of the banlieu, leads to the search of a missing lion cub, things go awfully wrong…

The main trio of the film are quintessential in their respective roles, perfecting their characters to unknown lengths in total opposite directions. We aren’t supposed to like certain protagonists, that’s made very clear from the moment we meet them. What Ly and co-writers Manenti and Giordano Gederlini (‘Mother’s Instinct‘) accomplish with their tragic story is far from simple. It’s complex, and makes you think about the internal struggles of both cops and community members, who all get pulled into mob behaviour, life-threatening situations and underhand police tactics. The preventable tragedies and pointless injustices make it all the more discomforting to sit through, but nonetheless delivers its message loud and clear.

Ly utilises the film’s locations to its full potential, transforming seemingly normal apartment buildings into treacherous mazes, while cinematographer Julien Poupard (‘The Eddy‘) makes use of drone footage and tracking shots that give the audience the feeling of being pulled right into the middle of the action.

Its contemporary portrait of Paris shows the sad reality of police brutality, community negligence and takes a deep look at France’s societal problems. ‘Les Misérables‘ is intensely raw, powerful and heartbreaking, building tension to the point of enraging you. A monumental debut.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Rialto Distribution will bring ‘Les Misérables’ to Australian cinemas 27 August.

Review – ‘Les Misérables’

Reviewed online (screener provided by publicist), August 21, 2020. Rating: MA15+ Running time: 103 min.

PRODUCTION: A Rialto Distribution release of a Srab Films production. Producers: Toufik Ayadi, Christophe Barral.

CREW: Director: Ladj Ly. Screenplay: Ladj Ly, Giordano Gederlini, Alexis Manenti. Editor: Flora Volpelière. Cinematography: Julien Poupard.

WITH: Damien Bonnard, Alexis Manenti, Djebril Zonga, Issa Perica, Al-Hassan Ly, Steve Tientcheu, Almamy Kanoute, Nizar Ben Fatma, Raymond Lopez, Luciano Lopez.

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