Cannes 2019 review: Les Misérables (Ladj Ly)

Expanding on his own short film of the same title, Parisian docmaker Ladj Ly weaves together strands of social commentary, cop thriller and unsubtle poetic references to Victor Hugo’s novel, which was set in the same Montfermeil suburb where this tense and timely drama unfolds, starting with a lion cub being stolen by a kid and turning into a cover-up of police brutality.

Ly begins on a striking sequence depicting the fluid, harmonic flow of crowds moving into Paris to celebrate a World Cup win, which last summer gave new polish to the 1998 ready-made symbol of a multicultural, deeply integrated France. As the 2005 riots proved, this wasn’t entirely true back then and it isn’t true now, with Paris’ unique city structure and sociocultural conditions always stoking tension.

The title, appearing on screen above a moving sea of French supporters, and the cards and the quotes and the place, all make for a bold mental backdrop to the ensuing tale of ordinary unrest gone exponentially wrong, which is nervy, janky and predicated on conflicting agendas. Three members of the ‘anti-crime’ squad begin a day like many others. For Stéphane (Damien Bonnard), recently transferred, it’s the first. For Chris (Alexis Manenti, also screenwriter) – the kind of leader who often has to reiterate he’s the leader – it’s a chance to boss Stéphane around, prank him, and give him the lay of the land on the brutal methods required to survive in the neighborhood. For the quieter, introspective Gwada (Djibril Zonga) it’s a day of reflection and sudden mistakes.

There’s no question that each of them is a type – the rookie, the bully, the conflicted mediator – and that the script written by Ly, Gederlini and Manenti leans heavily on a genre structure which will feel intimately familiar to mainstream audiences. The fact that the two main characters out of the three cops are white, and that one is an abusive, racist bully who causes the whole mess, makes you wonder whether this is a subversive, subtle appropriation of certain storytelling codes on the part of Ly, or simply a weird default choice that doesn’t quite jam with the spirit of the film. This a director who values nuanced observation of cultural realities beyond cliches, who has first-hand experience of both place and subject, and yet the world he creates – which decidedly succeeds in expressing compelling side characters and a makeshift social balance that exhibits as many strong perspectives as it does possible failure points – is pushed into the background for the majority of the film.

The climax leverages this disparity in a stunning final sequence in which the victim, more of a symbol than a character, rises to own that symbolic power and to embody it fully. For all its arresting intensity, however, it’s the quieter first half of the film that achieves the richest of textures, depicting local youth as stuck not only between a rock and a hard place, but between several rocks and several layers of social order. If Stéphane’s orange armband, which he diligently insists on wearing at first, gets soon discarded because “it’s obvious we’re cops”, it is just as obvious that on these streets the moral code is not binary; compromise must be struck with different actors. The political maneuvering from “The Mayor” (Steve Tientcheu), the stoic influence of ex-con Salah (Almamy Kanoute), plus the Muslim Brotherhood and various other gangs all contribute enormously to the creation of a canvas on which Ly can draw out his sturdy, well-paced, street-level cop drama. Like young Buzz on a roof with a tablet, sending his all-seeing drone above the projects (Ly finds a neat excuse to give some breathing room to the proceedings by deploying such footage – not only internally justified, but essential to the plot), you wish you could have climbed higher, flown further, and left the cop car more often.