- Eddie Harrison
- 5 March 2020
GFF 2020: Hard-edged and highly pertinent cop thriller from first-timer Ladj Ly
The title no longer belongs exclusively to Victor Hugo and the mega-musical – first-time feature director Ladj Ly has audaciously hijacked it for himself with this compelling film that's very much of the moment in terms of showing the hair-trigger tensions of urban France. A Cannes Jury Prize-winner, Oscar nominee and César winner for Best Film, Les Misérables is a hard-edged cop thriller that offers the kind of stark, pithy social commentary featured in Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing.
After an opening that captures an unstable burst of fraternity prompted by France's 2018 World Cup win, plain-clothes 'flic' Stéphane (Damien Bonnard) joins Montfermeil's Anti-Crime Brigade, alongside Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Gwada, (Djebril Zonga) as they go about their regular daily route, harassing young women, racially-profiling locals and generally acting like the bad cops they are. Their overaggressive approach to high-pressure policework is exposed when a young boy steals a lion cub from a circus, and their attempt to retrieve the animal leads to a series of complications and eventual fatalities.
The Mali-born Ly brings a documentary feel to proceedings, eliciting natural performances from a large cast and conveying a sense of urban decay, where drugs and prostitution are just part of the economy. As with fellow awards-winner Parasite, a late lurch into violent melodrama arguably lessens the impact, but otherwise Les Misérables does a fine job in capturing communities under pressure.
Hugo's work is briefly discussed in irrelevant fashion, and there's a telling quote from the book before the end credits. France may have various social crises to contend with, but it's heartening that their filmmakers are tackling the issues head-on in urgent, affecting films like this. With Les Misérables, Ly has constructed a lean, powerful and superbly acted drama that will strongly reverberate both inside and outside of France.
Screening on Tue 3 and Wed 4 Mar as part of the Glasgow Film Festival 2020. General release from Fri 24 Apr.