By Mónica Delgado
Les misérables by French filmmaker Ladj Ly had all the elements to promise a real feat: a filmmaker who comes from the marginal Arab and African suburbs of France, actors of the same community ready to play as gang members, a pop review of the heart of Victor Hugo’s work about the excesses of legality and the revenge of poverty, and a police story / thriller that takes the streets by storm. However, these elements are wasted for an unforgivable concession to a festival formula that insists on portraying social issues from the codes of miserabilism and the urgency to calm the guilt through a “social” or realist cinema.
The Cesar award and its interest in documentary filmmaking made Ladj Ly a promising figure. The close-ups of a celebration amidst a soccer world cup present the characters in an environment of exception, to then throw them to an impoverished quotidianity of gangs and ghettos. Then, Ladj Ly takes us to the heart of a police station, whose end is to supervise the day to day of a peripheral community of migrants, among Africans, Arabs and Muslims. And it’s from the perspective of the policemen as an axis that Ly begins to pivot the details of the film. Little by little the film destroys expectations, though later lifts off a bit towards the end, when a group of children and adolescents decide to take revenge to the local police, which is corrupt and amoral, through fireworks and Molotov cocktails, a sort of City of God, or an unusual group of criminal children that take on the dimension of a raw and hostile reality.
The film’s point of view is the one of a recently arrived policeman, played by Damien Bonnard (the splendid actor of Guiraudie’s Rester Vertical) who becomes the moral voice of the team of police work who he has just joined with the objective of patrolling certain suburbs overtaken by different gangs. But this moral point of view of the character is imposed throughout the film. Thus, one expects that the filmmaker had chosen an alter ego who was more familiar to the world he pretended to know, because then something like the brutal attack to the police (the high point of the film) becomes not only a response of satiety towards violence, but also an example of the modes of representation “for export” of delinquency and free will, or the stigma of racial nature. Is it possible that the Ladj Ly of the slums decided to portray this violence in such a distanced and exotic way?
But what’s most perturbing about this film is its political bet, in the reinvention of the classic novel of Victor Hugo, where the Jean Valjean is a massacred child by the police that carries a thirst for revenge. For Ladj Ly, violence is a product of savage repression and its institutionalization. But beyond this argument freely inspired by the famous novel, Ladj Ly’s Les miserables falls apart offering exacerbated violence, a Mise-en-scène placed only for shock value. There’s the regrettable moment of the lock-down of a child being beaten in a lion cage. Definitely, a film from the official competition which will please the jury president.
Director: Ladj Ly
Producers: Toufik Ayadi, Christophe Barral
Script: Ladj Ly, Giordano Gederlini, Alexis Manenti
Cast : Damien Bonnard, Alexis Manenti, Djibril Zonga
Production companies : SRAB Films, Rectangle Productions, Lyly Films
France, 2019, 103 mins