Cannes 2019

Ladj Ly’s Les misérables

On Film / The Daily — May 17, 2019
Ladj Ly’s Les misérables (2019)

For over twenty years, French actor and documentary filmmaker Ladj Ly, still only thirty-nine, has been drawing attention to the perpetually brewing crisis in Montfermeil, an eastern suburb of Paris where ethnically diverse immigrants are in a near-constant standoff with the police—and each other. During the riots that erupted in 2005, two teens seeking shelter died at the hands of police in Clichy-sous-Bois, a neighboring banlieue. That tragedy inspired Ly to make a short film a few years ago that picked up awards at festivals around the world. Now, working for the most part with the same cast and crew, Ly has remade Les misérables as his first fiction feature—and gotten himself invited to Cannes. “I thought maybe there was a small, small chance of getting into the Directors’ Fortnight,” he tells Variety’s Pat Saperstein, “but the competition—wow!”

Wild Bunch cofounder Vincent Maraval tells Deadline’s Nancy Tartaglione that “Ladj is a ray of sunshine in a peevish cinematographic landscape. He’s the new boss, and no one knows it yet.” Considering the references that pop up again and again in the first round of reviews of Les misérables, the new boss clearly knows where to look for old lessons to incorporate. As in Training Day, the 2001 film directed by Antoine Fuqua and written by David Ayer, a rookie cop is assigned to accompany an old hand or two on their rounds. In Les misérables, it’s Stéphane (Damien Bonnard) who’s horrified by the corruption and brutality of Chris, a blatant racist played by cowriter Alexis Manenti, and his black partner, Gwada (model-turned-actor Djebril Zonga).

Les misérables pulsates with a sense of threat and doom that reminds many of Mathieu Kassovitz’s banlieue classic La haine (1995), and more than a few reviewers have noted a nod or two to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989). And then, of course, there’s a key allusion right off the top. “Ly’s choice of title is a brash, audacious one, but its invocation of Victor Hugo’s 1862 opus is no empty gesture,” writes Guy Lodge for Variety, noting that throughout the film, there are “grave references to Hugo’s work: ‘There are no bad plants or bad men; there are only bad cultivators,’ runs a choice onscreen quote.”

But Jonathan Romney, writing for Screen, argues that “for all of its familiarity, Ly’s film is executed with enormous confidence and energy, building up to an apocalyptic ending that delivers on a gradual build-up of nervous tension.” In the Hollywood Reporter, Jordan Mintzer agrees that it’s “a gritty and fiery urban thriller underscored by scathing social commentary on the current state of the Paris suburbs, depicted here as a powder keg ready to pop.”

In the Los Angeles Times, Justin Chang suggests that Les misérables “packs an entire series’ worth of characters and subplots into less than two hours, though it’s unfortunate that the three cops, whose differences place them at seething odds with one another, monopolize most of the narrative attention. The imbalance there is political as well as dramatic; Ly surveys all his characters without judgment, but a longer, richer version of this movie might have distributed its sympathies to even more powerful effect.” And while the A.V. Club’s A. A. Dowd “admired the one-day-in-David-Ayer-hell energy of the movie, I also found it bombastic and contrived. It’s the police drama as police baton.”

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