Les Misérables




A tough, realistic portrait of life today in a part of Paris unknown to tourists.

Les Misérables


Ladj Ly's film which borrows the title of Victor Hugo's famous novel is set in Paris in the Montfermeil district where Hugo wrote his classic. That fact is mentioned in the course of the tale but this a contemporary view of this Paris banlieue and it stands as proof that in this largely Muslim district nothing has significantly changed for the better. Indeed what we see in this poor area patrolled by cops enlisted in the plain clothes Anti-Crime Brigade makes it look like a war zone with the people and the police as the opposing forces. The story that grows out of this centres on an act of unjustifiable violence by a police officer, but the film chooses not to be one-sided in its sympathies since it understands the pressures on the cops as well as the frustrations of the inhabitants. Consequently, Les Misérables puts one in mind of the impressive 2018 American movie Monsters and Men which also refused to take sides in a not dissimilar situation regarding that as too simplistic a stance.


Les Misérables is a powerful work with a strong sense of its location and convincing performances all round, but it fails to involve us with its characters to the extent that Monsters and Men did and that weakness is linked to its structure. Ly's film takes a form which makes it feel like a work in three distinct parts. The first of these, well over half an hour in length, introduces us to the main characters including three policemen in one car working as a unit. Here we meet a newcomer from out of town learning the ropes (Damien Bonnard), a local man (Djebril Zonga) who is a Berber with sympathy for all and the top man (Alexis Manenti) whose outlook is that of a white supremacist. Those encountered by these three include a drug lord (Steve Trentcheu), a Muslim shopkeeper to whom people turn for help (Almamy Kanouté) and two boys (Issa Perica and Al-Hassan Ly) one of whom is a thief. Both children play an important part in the events that occur.


But, if this first part establishes the characters, it does so by cutting confusingly from one to another at a time when nothing obviously links them and none of them -  not even the three cops - are presented with the depth and detail needed to get a deep response from the audience. In effect, this segment goes all out for atmosphere for its own sake but feels very bitty. The second section is different because a plot now takes over, one that starts with the theft of a lion cub but then pivots on the unlawful act by one of the cops and on attempts to cover it up. This works much better, but one is left with the impression that the film is portraying one day in the lives of its characters and will therefore conclude when the three policemen go home at last.  Instead, against expectations, the film moves on to the next day, thus providing the more melodramatic third section of the film in which widespread violence takes over. Not ineffectively it concludes with an open ending yet, if in doing so it leaves it to the audience to decide what the outcome is, the impression given by the film as a whole is decidedly downbeat. It's an interesting piece, but an uneven one.




Cast: Damien Bonnard, Djebril Zonga, Alexis Manenti, Steve Trentcheu, Issa Perica, Al-Hassan Ly, Almamy Kanouté, Jeanne Balibar, Nizar Ben Fatma, Raymond Lopez, Luciano Lopez, Jaihson Lopez.


Dir Ladj Ly, Pro Toufik Ayadi and Christophe Barral, Screenplay Ladj Ly, Giordano Gederlini and Alexis Manenti, Ph Julien Poupard, Ed Flora Volpelière, Costumes Marine Galliano.


SRAB Films/Rectangle Productions/Lyly Films/Canal+Ciné+/Le Pacte/Wild Bunch-Altitude Film Distribution.
104 mins. France. 2019. Rel: 4 September 2020. Cert. 15.