Ladj Ly’s debut feature, Les Misérables, opens with a young boy wearing the French flag draped on his shoulders, a declaration of identification and belonging: I am France. The boy’s name is Issa (Issa Perica) and as he goes out to meet his friends and join the crowds celebrating France’s 2018 World Cup championship, there is no accompanying music, just the sound of his footsteps, street sounds and the kid’s conversations, giving those initial moments the feel of a documentary. Once the youths join the mass of enthusiastic celebrants in the center of Paris, waving flags and singing La Marseillaise, instrumental music enters, and within it, an ominous undertone. As one looks at the enormous mass of people, all singing out love and victory, one cannot help wonder: what if all this energy turned to anger and hate?
The fast-paced, suspenseful, drama is a feat of visual storytelling, as so much is conveyed by the precise and evocative cinematography (Julien Poupard). Set in Les Bosquets, a poor housing project in the suburbs of Paris (where director and co-screenwriter Ladj Ly grew up) the shifting perspectives of the narrative and camera follow the children, different factions and gangs in the neighborhood, and the three members of the anti-crime police assigned to keep the peace.
Stéphane Ruiz (Damien Bonnard) is a new member of the anti-crime squad, and as his partners Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Gwada (Djebril Zonga), introduce Stéphane to the neighborhood and their methods, the viewer becomes part of his initiation. First stop is the police station, where an aggressive verging on abusive atmosphere prevails, and La Commissaire (Jeanne Balibar) flaunts her rank by flirting with her subordinates, then doesn’t even blink when informing Stéphane that she “does not approve of inappropriate behavior”. Meanwhile, on the sidelines of the station, an irate father is yelling and throwing things at his son, who has just been picked up for stealing. The son is Issa. This is a film in which every moment counts, each frame full of information, from intense close-ups, to the literally bird’s eye view from the drone operated by Buzz, a quiet kid who likes to observe.
Les Misérables immerses the viewer in the life of the neighborhood. Its denizens – the kids and teens living in poverty, the self-designated “Mayor” (Steve Tientcheu) and his protection plans, the Muslim Brotherhood recruiting kids with offers of candy, rival gangs, Chris the corrupt and cynical cop, and even a circus troupe – create a complex portrait of mounting anger and intensifying tensions with no resolution in sight.
Les Misérables was awarded Best International Film at the 36th Jerusalem Film Festival 2019.
Les Misérables, directed by Ladj Ly
France/2019/104 minutes/French with Hebrew and English subtitles