A cops’-eye drama of real class and poise, Les Misérables brings nuance to the racial tinderbox of Paris’s impoverished banlieues. Don’t be misled by the title: Victor Hugo’s epic tale of revolutionary fervour is only referenced in passing (the film ends on a slightly obvious and unnecessary quote from the book), although its themes are a source of loose inspiration. This is no rabble-rousing period piece but a vivid dissection of modern-day France’s social ills that’s juiced up with some smart acting, tense stand-offs and a pervasive sense of despair. It’s gripping, right up to its overblown climax, and offers no easy answers, only more complicated questions.
The film actually opens in a place of hope, with Parisians united in joy over the country’s 2018 World Cup win and celebrating in the streets. Yet the line between street party and full-blown riot feels pretty porous, even here. First-time director Ladj Ly uses real footage filmed in the shadow of the Arc de Triomphe, expertly matching some jerkily vérité camerawork with a jittery score to undercut it all with a sense of foreboding. The next time seething masses take to the streets, you sense it won’t be to have a big knees-up.
In the middle of the giddy mêlée is Issa (Issa Perica), a young Muslim kid from a notorious estate in eastern Paris – Le Bosquets – and a key, if rarely glimpsed figure in what happens later. The huge ’60s housing projects he calls home were set ablaze for real during the city’s 2005 riots and Ly, a local to the area, knows the place inside and out. He introduces this greying slab of a ghost town, annexed by petty crims and dealers. The Muslim Brotherhood try to impart discipline into Issa and his pals, but drugs and prostitution are endemic, and tensions between French Africans, Arabs, Travellers and the local cops bubble under the surface like magma.
Our entrée is a trio of contrasting cops who patrol the area together: the bull-headed Chris (Alexis Manenti), the mellower Gwada (Djibril Zonga) and a new team member Stéphane (Damien Bonnard). It’s an unusual dynamic – cinema and TV is full of police double-acts but trios are much rarer – and beneath the banter and razzing, bad feeling builds between Chris and Stéphane over the latter’s methods. The cops flatter themselves that they’re respected – Chris lets the local kids call him by his unflattering nickname, ‘The Pink Pig’ – but Chris’s brutality and casual racism has eroded whatever goodwill might have existed. Improbably, a missing lion cub lights a fuse the trio must desperately try to extinguish before it sets the whole place ablaze.
La Haine is an obvious touchpoint for what follows, with its blistering vision of the simmering banlieues and its punky energy, as is Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (Ly has been called the ‘French Spike Lee’, a pretty thankless label for a debut filmmaker). And Les Misérables has one foot in TV procedurals like the underrated Spiral, too, embracing social complexities from a multitude of angles. Ly brings depth to his characters, from the cops to the kids to a reformed Islamic radical called Salah (Almamy Kanouté), who hands out gnomic advice and free kebabs and offers the cops an unlikely ally in trying to keep the peace.
If there’s a flaw, it comes late in the film, when it all goes a bit Crash. All the subtlety and slowburn tension go out the window in a big final showdown that rings a bit hollow. Still, it’s a hugely impressive debut and visually arresting from first to last. When Ly’s camera takes to the skies in the film’s impactful drone shots (another La Haine influence), the concrete wasteland below takes on the eerie appearance of a graveyard. But the only dream anyone is dreaming in this ‘Les Mis’ is to get out before it all goes up in flames.
Out in the UK on Sep 4